Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, said the article about John McCain that appeared in Thursday's paper was about a man nearly felled by scandal who rebuilt himself as a fighter against corruption but is still "careless about appearances, careless about his reputation, and that's a pretty important thing to know about somebody who wants to be president of the United States."
But judging by the explosive reaction to the 3,000-word article, most readers saw it as something else altogether. They saw it as a story about illicit sex. And most were furious at The Times.
The uproar was over an assertion in the second paragraph that during McCain's first run for the White House eight years ago, some of his top advisers became "convinced" he was having a "romantic" relationship with a female lobbyist and intervened to protect the candidate from himself. McCain, 71, and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, denied they had an affair, and at a press conference after the article was published, McCain denied that anyone ever confronted him about their relationship. He described her as a friend.
The article had repercussions for both McCain and The Times. He may benefit, at least in the short run, from a conservative backlash against the "liberal" New York Times. The newspaper found itself in the uncomfortable position of being the story as much as publishing the story, in large part because, although it raised one of the most toxic subjects in politics - sex - it offered readers no proof that McCain and Iseman had a romance.
In a follow-up article on Friday, the newspaper even seemed to play down its role in the sex angle. It described the previous day's article as talking about McCain's "ties" to Iseman and his "association" with her. The only mention of romance came in quoting a question to McCain at his press conference.
Hoyt dug in:
The article was notable for what it did not say: It did not say what convinced the advisers that there was a romance. It did not make clear what McCain was admitting when he acknowledged behaving inappropriately - an affair or just an association with a lobbyist that could look bad. And it did not say whether Weaver, the only on-the-record source, believed there was a romance. The Times did not offer independent proof, like the text messages between Detroit's mayor and a female aide that The Detroit Free Press disclosed recently, or the photograph of Donna Rice sitting on Gary Hart's lap.
Hoyt challenged the Times' executive editor in print.
But in the absence of a smoking gun, I asked Keller why he decided to run what he had.
"If the point of the story was to allege that McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, we'd have owed readers more compelling evidence than the conviction of senior staff members," he replied. "But that was not the point of the story. The point of the story was that he behaved in such a way that his close aides felt the relationship constituted reckless behavior and feared it would ruin his career."
I think that ignores the scarlet elephant in the room. A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.
Hoyt concluded by saying the innuendo over an alleged affair should not have run - which of course would have made the story utterly shrugworthy (lobbyists? Keating Five? Yawn).
And if you cannot provide readers with some independent evidence, I think it is wrong to report the suppositions or concerns of anonymous aides about whether the boss is getting into the wrong bed.
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 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.
Media critic Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine wrote:
The only thing more shocking that the New York Times printing salacious innuendo about a presidential candidate is its editor not understanding why this caused controversy. I'm not sure whether he's isolated or clueless or issuing cynical spin.