Stonewalling won’t cut it
With blogs and pundits chattering about the possible motivations and machinations behind the New York Times article suggesting an improper political and/or personal relationship between McCain and lobbyist Vicki Iseman, it is not enough for Bill to kiss off thousands of critics by saying, “The story speaks for itself.”
In fact, as discussed more fully in a moment, it doesn’t.
And Len is on even shakier ground when he acknowledges that his matching story was rushed onto the web only after the NYT cleared the way. “We had elements of the story in story form,” Downie told Editor and Publisher. “When the Times story appeared on their website last night, we were able to talk to sources who gave us further information that made it able to be published today.”
Not only has the story itself been kicking around for a long time, but the story about the story has been making the rounds since before Christmas.
Back on Dec. 20, 2007, Matt Drudge reported that McCain “has been waging a ferocious, behind-the-scenes battle with the New York Times…to mount a bold defense against charges of giving special treatment to a lobbyist.” In reporting then that NYT reporters were arguing for publication of the piece at Christmas time, Matt said “editor Keller expressed serious reservations about journalism ethics and issuing a damaging story so close to an election.”
In a fascinating online article today that purports to provide the back-story of the McCain expose, New Republic correspondent Gabriel Sherman suggests that one of the reasons the Times finally decided to run the piece is because his magazine was about to publish an article questioning the whereabouts of the long-pending investigation.
To support this thin but delectable premise, Gabriel quotes Mark Salter, a McCain operative who told Time Magazine that the Times decided to publish the investigation “because the New Republic was going to run a story that looked back at the infighting there. [The Times] decided that they would rather smear McCain than suffer a story that made the New York Times newsroom look bad.”
(UPDATE 2.22.08: Gabriel today distanced himself further from Mark's theory. “That is the McCain campaign spin and we never set out to force the Times' hand or preempt the Times' piece,” Gabriel told E&P. “We were curious why the Times came close to publishing it and sat on it. We didn't try to force anything.”)
Although I happen to be more of an Obamocrat than a McCainiac, I found the NYT article, while explosive, to be fairly lightweight, as exposes go.
The Times story is crafted to lead the reader to the unmistakable, but unspoken, conclusion that the senator was having an affair with the lobbyist. But the article provides no more support for this notion than the fear of certain unnamed McCain aides that the relationship was “romantic.”
The Times story does a better job of demonstrating here that the senator was perhaps too vigorous in his advocacy for some of the lobbyist’s clients.
But the juiciest and best-documented part of the expose is its reprise of the senator’s shameless support of Charles Keating, the 1980s savings-and-loan figure who pleaded guilty to fraud. Although that happens to be old news, the episode is perhaps well worth remembering as McCain stumps for the White House.
Notwithstanding whatever illumination the Times and Post articles may provide, the circuitous and mysterious journeys the stories took prior to publication raise questions about how – and how well – two of the nation’s most prestigious newspapers report, edit and evaluate such potentially explosive articles.
Above all else, the timing of the publication of the articles during the election cycle demands a full explanation. Was the NYT piece ready before McCain clinched the nomination, as Drudge suggests? If so, why was it held? If it was not ready until now, what new information emerged since Christmas to qualify the Times article for publication? (We already know the Post published because the NYT did.)
With nothing less than the credibility of the Times and Post on the line, the editors of these newspapers owe the public the story behind their stories. Readers have a right to know.