Writing In Shades Of Gray

John McCain New York Times generic
AP/New York Times
This column was written by the editors of National Review Online

Well, if that's it, the McCain campaign has one fewer worry. Back in December, Matt Drudge reported that the New York Times had a story about John McCain so devastating that the Arizona senator was begging the paper to kill it. But if the story the Times published on Wednesday night is that story, and the whole story, then there's not much to it.

The anonymously sourced, 3,000-word piece alleges that John McCain used his position as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee to do favors for one Vicki Iseman, a lobbyist 30 years his junior with whom the Times claims he was having an affair. But the story fails to deliver the promised goods: It doesn't show that McCain used his position to do favors for Iseman, and it doesn't show that the two were having an affair.

The Times published its story after months of internal debate. The New Republic reports that this fight centered on the story's "most explosive charge" -- that McCain and Iseman had an affair. The newsroom debate, according to TNR, "pitted the reporters investigating the story, who believed they had nailed it, against executive editor Bill Keller, who believed they hadn't."

Keller was right.

The basis for the Times's insinuation -- "allegation" seems too strong a word -- of an affair is the word of two anonymous former McCain "associates" who worried that Iseman was showing up around McCain too often. Since both McCain and Iseman deny that they had an affair, Keller reportedly wanted more evidence before the paper went ahead with the story.

If he found that evidence, it's not in the article. In fact, the story is so weak that speculation has immediately focused on what it doesn't say. Surely the mighty Times wouldn't proceed with such a story unless the editors knew a lot more than was published, right? "I find it very difficult to believe that the Times would have put their chin so far out on this story," writes the left-wing blogger Josh Marshall, "if they didn't know a lot more than they felt they could put in the article, at least on first go."

The Times's evidence is almost as thin when it comes to the allegation that McCain did favors for Iseman's clients. The McCain campaign issued a detailed response, which at the very least makes it hard to conclude that McCain did anything out of the ordinary for Iseman.

There's one criticism of the Times with which we disagree: A number of McCain surrogates are questioning the timing of the piece's publication, suggesting that the Times waited for a maximally damaging moment. In fact, the story comes at a reasonably fortunate time for McCain. What if it had been published a few days before the New Hampshire primary, when McCain's political future hung in the balance? Or before the Florida primary, when Mitt Romney was still a threat? Or a few days before the general election? But that day is far off, and the story will fade in the interim unless further incriminating details emerge.

Of course, that's the key question: Is this all there is to the story? If so, the Times should never have published it. If not, the Times should never have published a fragmentary version of it rather than laying out all the evidence. Either way, this is a discredit to the "paper of record."
By the editors of National Review Online
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online