The Gory Details Behind the NYT's Failed Smear of McCain
No one is riding to the Times' defenseforits sputtering "bombshell" of a story on John McCain and telecom lobbyist Vicki Iseman, the New Republic magazine rushed this Gabriel Sherman article onto the webwhich unearths some of the grisly details of the story's torturous birth process. (Photo courtesy Reuters)
Beyond its revelations, however, what's most remarkable about the article is that it appeared in the paper at all: The new information it reveals focuses on the private matters of the candidate, and relies entirely on the anecdotal evidence of McCain's former staffers to justify the piece-both personal and anecdotal elements unusual in the Gray Lady. The story is filled with awkward journalistic moves-the piece contains a collection of decade-old stories about McCain and Iseman appearing at functions together and concerns voiced by McCain's aides that the Senator shouldn't be seen in public with Iseman-and departs from the Times' usual authoritative voice. At one point, the piece suggestively states: "In 1999 she began showing up so frequently in his offices and at campaign events that staff members took notice. One recalled asking, 'Why is she always around?'" In the absence of concrete, printable proof that McCain and Iseman were an item, the piece delicately steps around purported romance and instead reports on the debate within the McCain campaign about the alleged affair.
What happened? The publication of the article capped three months of intense internal deliberations at the Times over whether to publish the negative piece and its most explosive charge about the affair. It pitted the reporters investigating the story, who believed they had nailed it, against executive editor Bill Keller, who believed they hadn't. It likely cost the paper one investigative reporter, who decided to leave in frustration. And the Times ended up publishing a piece in which the institutional tensions about just what the story should be are palpable.
Some observers say that the piece, published today, was not ready to roll. On Wednesday evening, much of the cable news commentary focused on the Times' heavy use of innuendo and circumstantial evidence. This morning, Time magazine managing editor Rick Stengel told MSNBC that he wouldn't have published such a piece. Since the story broke, the McCain campaign has been doing its best to pin the story on the Times and make the media angle the focus.
After John McCain in a brief, muted press conference denied a relationship with telecom lobbyist Vicki Iseman, White House reporter Elisabeth Bumiller filed a story to the web, quoting McCain in a line that probably won't hurt him among conservatives:
Since it was in The New York Times, I don't take it at face value.
Bumiller also reprinted a statement from Executive Editor Bill Keller defending the story:
On the substance, we think the story speaks for itself. On the timing, our policy is, we publish stories when they are ready. 'Ready' means the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction, the subjects have all been given a full and fair chance to respond, and the reporting has been written up with all the proper context and caveats. This story was no exception. It was a long time in the works. It reached my desk late Tuesday afternoon. After a final edit and a routine check by our lawyers, we published it.