Nets Lead w/ NYT Hit on McCain, Question Journalistic Standards --2/22/2008
2. Matthews Scoffs at 'Irrelevant' Limbaugh's Media Comments
3. Thursday's Today Show Saw Crisis for McCain, Not the NY Times
4. Stephanopoulos: A 'Damaging' Scandal: 'Between a Six and Seven'
5. CBS Early Show Hypes 'Bombshell Report' on McCain
6. FNC's Cameron: 'Unable to Substantiate' McCain Rumors
7. Joy Behar Wonders If 'Right Wing' Planted McCain Story?
All three broadcast network evening newscasts led Thursday night with the New York Times story alleging an improper relationship by John McCain with a female lobbyist, but questions about the journalistic standards of the newspaper were given as much consideration as the allegations against McCain. All three ran a soundbite from Rush Limbaugh denouncing the paper while ABC and CBS featured establishment media observers who castigated the Times for basing a story on the feelings of unnamed sources: Ken Auletta on ABC and Tom Rosenstiel on CBS.
"John McCain began his day answering questions about a story in the New York Times alleging an improper relationship eight years ago with a female lobbyist," ABC anchor Charles Gibson announced before cautioning: "The story had no evidence the relationship was romantic -- only unnamed sources reportedly claiming they were convinced it might be." With "Fit to Print?" on screen, Gibson set up a second story on how the Times article "raised as many questions about the paper and what standards of proof it would need to publish such a story as it did about the Senator." Reporter Dan Harris began: "Today, conservative talk radio hosts accused the New York Times of a supremely cynical slam job."
Over on CBS, anchor Katie Couric relayed how McCain's "supporters and others are questioning the Times' journalism and motivations." In the subsequent story, Tom Rosenstiel, of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, suggested: "So this is an odd situation where anonymous sources are not alleging something. They're alleging their feelings about something." Reporter Nancy Cordes noted how "conservative commentators rushed to his defense. Even Rush Limbaugh took a break from bashing McCain to take on another favored target."
Later, Bob Schieffer illustrated how out of touch he is with conservatives as he marveled at how "there were some people in the McCain campaign who actually winced when he was endorsed for the Republican nomination by the New York Times. They thought that would set off the Republican right, and, boy, did it ever. It looked like he would never find a way to get those people to warm to him." But now, "look what happened today. Here's Rush Limbaugh coming to his defense, Laura Ingraham..."
NBC anchor Brian Williams led with the charges and how attention turned to the newspaper's agenda: "It's a story about a female lobbyist in Washington and her relationship, business and perhaps otherwise, with Senator John McCain. It's a story about influence, appearances and propriety. But as this day went on, it was about more than that. It was about the timing and sourcing of a negative story on page one of a very influential newspaper."
Kelly O'Donnell reported that "the Times found itself the target of criticism today. Rush Limbaugh, usually harsh on McCain, was now on his side."
[This item, by the MRC's Brent Baker, was posted Thursday night on the MRC's blog, NewsBusters.org: newsbusters.org ]
The Web video clips of Limbaugh played by each newscast:
# ABC's World News: "The story is not the story. The story is that this paper endorsed McCain, sat on this story, and now puts it out just prior to McCain wrapping up the nomination."
The MRC's Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video to provide these highlights from the February 21 coverage on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts:
ABC's World News:
CHARLES GIBSON: Good evening. We begin tonight with politics, and another example of how difficult it is for a politician to prove a negative. John McCain began his day answering questions about a story in the New York Times alleging an improper relationship eight years ago with a female lobbyist. The story had no evidence the relationship was romantic -- only unnamed sources reportedly claiming they were convinced it might be. McCain and his advisors knew the story was coming. The candidate reacted with calm. His campaign reacted with fury. Here's our senior political correspondent Jake Tapper.
GIBSON: And as Jake mentioned, the New York Times story was the talk of the political world today and raised as many questions about the paper and what standards of proof it would need to publish such a story as it did about the Senator. Indeed, McCain's camp immediately tried to make the New York Times the issue, and not the story itself. Here's ABC's Dan Harris.
KATIE COURIC, in opening teaser: Tonight, John McCain versus the New York Times: The Senator denies the paper's suggestion he had an improper relationship with a lobbyist.
KATIE COURIC: Good evening, everyone. John McCain was savoring what's become a cakewalk to the Republican presidential nomination when a bundle of morning newspapers came crashing down in his path. It was today's New York Times questioning his ethics. But McCain says the front-page story suggesting he had an improper relationship with a lobbyist is not true. And now his supporters and others are questioning the Times' journalism and motivations. Nancy Cordes is covering this still-developing story. Nancy?
NANCY CORDES: The head of the Project for Excellence in Journalism says the Gray Lady wandered into a gray area with this one.
CORDES: McCain's opponents did their best to avoid the flap today-
COURIC: And meanwhile, Bob, what about this New York Times story about John McCain? Do you think it has legs? And do you think it will trip him up?
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Good evening. When it hit the Internet last night and the front page of the New York Times this morning, it was the shot heard 'round the political world. It's a story about a female lobbyist in Washington and her relationship, business and perhaps otherwise, with Senator John McCain. It's a story about influence, appearances and propriety. But as this day went on, it was about more than that. It was about the timing and sourcing of a negative story on page one of a very influential newspaper. Importantly here, the parties involved strongly denied the story. The paper defends the story. And that's where we'll begin tonight, with NBC's Kelly O'Donnell, who covers the McCain campaign for us.
KELLY O'DONNELL: The Times found itself the target of criticism today. Rush Limbaugh, usually harsh on McCain, was now on his side.
Appearing in Thursday's 1pm EST hour of MSNBC News Live, Hardball host Chris Matthews couldn't resist taking a few swipes at Rush Limbaugh. After anchor Peter Alexander played a clip of the conservative talk show host discussing the New York Times story on Senator John McCain, Matthews irritably claimed: "Rush Limbaugh is irrelevant here. Irrelevant. He doesn't know anything more than what he read in the New York Times."
The radio clip, which was from Thursday's edition of Limbaugh's program, featured the host urging the presidential candidate to learn a lesson from the front-page New York Times story speculating about a improper relationship with a D.C. lobbyist. Matthews's apparent annoyance at Limbaugh might have something to do with being mentioned in the clip. At one point during the monologue, Limbaugh asserted: "[McCain] has thought Chris Matthews and these other people in the drive-by media are his friends. They aren't."
[This item, by the MRC's Scott Whitlock, was posted Thursday afternoon on the MRC's blog, NewsBusters.org: newsbusters.org ]
Immediately upon returning from the clip, Alexander described Limbaugh as "going off" on the subject. Matthews quickly retorted, "Right. Well, going off is correct. It's a good phrase. You've captured him." He then followed that up with a trademark Matthews snort.
The question must be asked, however, if Limbaugh is "irrelevant," why has much of the media spent the last few weeks focusing on whether or not the talk show giant's opposition could derail McCain's campaign?
A transcript of the segment, which aired at 1:06pm EST on February 21:
PETER ALEXANDER: Just a short time ago, with all those ifs understood, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh weighed in on this, as we noted on the national radio program. Let's take a listen, though to what he just said.
The New York Times "scoop" strongly suggesting a romantic relationship between John McCain and a lobbyist drew heavy coverage from all three morning shows Thursday. All three featured interviews with McCain staff on the defensive. Critical scrutiny of the Times story was mostly left to the McCain aides, as the networks presented the tone of a real crisis for McCain, not for the newspaper.
On NBC's Today, at least its opening allowed the idea that an outrage had taken place: "Good morning, bombshell or hatchet job? A New York Times report out this morning raises questions about John McCain's relationship with a female lobbyist eight years ago. He is outraged and he is fighting back. Will it turn the presidential campaign upside down?"
[This item, by the MRC's Tim Graham, was based on a transcript provided by Geoffrey Dickens and was posted Friday morning on the MRC's blog, NewsBusters.org: newsbusters.org ]
Norah O'Donnell's news report calmly explained the Times narrative: "The report centers on McCain's ties to a lobbyist, 40-year-old Vicki Iseman and suggests a romantic relationship and that McCain may have used influence to benefit her clients. McCain denies any romance and says he did not intervene to help the lobbyist. The Times story has been in the works for months and McCain talked about it in December."
NBC political director Chuck Todd cast it as a serious challenge for the putative GOP nominee: "For McCain it's what happens Day Two with this story. How does he handle it, number one and number two, is there more?"
O'Donnell added: "And managing this story and how it might affect the campaign is certainly on the minds of top advisers. They say they expect it to be talked about very heavily for a day or two and then they hope to move on. They also say that for some of McCain's supporters, perhaps conservatives who do not like the mainstream media and the New York Times, it might even possible that if it's perceived that McCain has somehow been unfairly treated it might actually benefit the Senator. But it's too soon to say just how all of this will be measured by voters and by the campaign."
Matt Lauer interviewed "powerhouse lawyer" Bob Bennett -- just days after the two of them did an interview suggesting Bill Clinton was still wronged by Paula Jones and "Clinton haters" -- and Bennett was allowed to suggest the story was the "hatchet job" the NBC opening suggested.
But Lauer, who told Hillary Clinton at first blush of the Lewinsky story it could be the smear of the century, just suggested that even if the Times "romantic relationship" is unproven, it still could be a damaging story to McCain's "straight talk" image: "He says there was no romantic relationship, that no favors were granted. You reiterate that. But even if this was just a close friendship, a typically close friendship, does a close friendship with a Washington lobbyist fly in the face of what John McCain has stood for over these past several years, the Straight Talk Express and an independence from special interest groups in Washington? "
In his follow-up segment, NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert echoed Chuck Todd (or maybe Chuck Todd was echoing the boss), that it was time for wait-and-see, not a time for questioning the Times. The screen shot wasn't Bombshell or Hatchet Job, it was "McCain Under Fire, How Will Report Impact Race?"
Meredith Vieira asked: "We just heard Mr. Bennett say that this is a hatchet job, that there's no beef here. Is there anything in this article that could possibly derail the McCain campaign?
Russert replied: "Well there's a lot of smoke and we have to wait for the reaction, I think, from several different groups. One, what will conservative activists, particularly talk show radio hosts say about this today? Will they focus on the New York Times as the liberal, mainstream media? Or will they be concerned about Senator McCain and this allegation in violation of traditional family values? Secondly what will his opponents do, Meredith? Mike Huckabee, who has stayed in the race, what will he say about this race? Mitt Romney, who withdrew from the race and endorsed John McCain and asked his delegates to support Senator McCain, what will his delegates do? And thirdly the Democrats, Meredith. They'll mostly be quiet but will they see it as an opportunity to neutralize John McCain on his criticisms of their ethics or public financing issues and try to return fire on these alleged ethical lapses by Senator McCain."
Then Vieira asked if it would unite conservatives: "You know one of McCain's advisers suggest that it could help the Senator with the Republican base. He says, 'Nothing unites conservatives like the New York Times.'"
In his answer Russert briefly turned to the Times, but not about what they left in, but what they left out: "He very well may be right. And I expect that we're gonna hear a lot of that from talk radio today. Kind of a galvanizing, unifying factor saying 'If the New York Times is out to get the potential nominee of our party that's a pretty good sign that he has the credentials we want.' But to the point Chuck Todd raised in the earlier piece. The question other journalists will be asking is, what's here? Why did the Times decide to print now? Is there anything else that they were suggesting that has been left out? We anxiously await to hear from Senator McCain at nine o'clock this morning to see how he will react, both substantively and politically. So this story will play out today in a very big way. And we have to wait to hear from the conservative activists, the opponents and the Democratic Party presidential candidates as well."
Remember that in NBC's case, they spent a long time investigating the Juanita Broaddrick story in 1999 after Lisa Myers interviewed her about her rape charge against Bill Clinton. The delay in the timing of that story was obviously political, in that NBC sat on the story for weeks until the danger of impeachment was eliminated in the Senate, and then let the exclusive slip away to newspapers (The Wall Street Journal editorial page, and then the Washington Post). NBC anchor Tom Brokaw never aired a Broaddrick story on the Nightly News.
But when it comes to John McCain, it's a full-crisis flooding of the zone which will "play out today in a very big way."
ABC's Good Morning America on Thursday also allowed questioning of the Times, but left it mostly to the opening: "This morning, breaking news. The New York Times raises questions about John McCain's relationship with a female lobbyist. Scandal or smear campaign? McCain responds this morning." If it's a smear, don't professional journalists hold the story and investigate for themselves before leaping onto it? ABC turned to its expert on sex scandals, former Clinton spin control artist George Stephanopoulos who called it a major scandal for McCain on a scale of one to ten: "Somewhere between a six and seven, Diane. I think it's a damaging story, there's no question about that."
MRC's Scott Whitlock captured the transcripts. Co-host Diane Sawyer jumped in at the top of the show: "But we want to begin with breaking news overnight in the race to '08. Of course, the New York Times reporting that Senator McCain's top advisers allegedly believed his relationship with a female lobbyist had become personal and allegedly took steps to put an end to it. Jake Tapper's gonna take us through the details."
[This item, by the MRC's Tim Graham, was posted Friday morning on the MRC's blog, NewsBusters.org: newsbusters.org ]
Tapper suggested it was a nightmare for the candidate, not the image of the Times: "Good morning, Diane. Well, it's exactly the last kind of story a presidential candidate wants on the front page of major newspapers, let alone a candidate who prides himself on ethics, integrity and standing up to special interests. The New York Times and a follow-up story in the Washington Post alleged that top aides to the senator were concerned about his closeness to a female lobbyist. It's a story that John McCain vehemently denies...The story details how eight years ago, unnamed aides were concerned about McCain's friendship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman. Quote, "Convinced the relationship had become romantic," the New York Times writes, "some of his top advisors intervened to protect the candidate from himself. Instructing staff members to block the woman's access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him." Both McCain and Iseman denied any inappropriate relationship."
Tapper ran McCain's rebuttals, but concluded: "McCain's image as a man of integrity risks being tarnished....Conservative pundits seem to be rallying to McCain's defense, going after the media for the timing of the story. McCain may have finally found a story to get conservative pundits on his side."
This is where leaving the criticism of the Times of the candidate is a dodge. Instead of questioning the newspaper, ABC left (at least to some minds) the impression that conservatives will rally around a man once his reputation for integrity is ruined -- as if they hate integrity? Tapper left out the idea that conservatives would believe the Times is unjustly smearing McCain and Iseman in that concluding formulation. What about this tarnishing the integrity of the newspaper?
Co-host Robin Roberts interviewed McCain adviser Charlie Black, who said "This doesn't meet the journalistic standards of a third-rate tabloid. And it's a shame that they have stooped to that."
Roberts replied: "And they have endorsed though you -- I understand what you're saying about the New York Times, but they did indeed endorse Senator McCain." She didn't see that as showing the Times to be calculating hypocrites, but as a defense of the Times. Black hit back: "Well, it is interesting that they've been working on this gossipy story for several months and at the same time they endorsed him."
Roberts complimented McCain's integrity, and then suggested the ethical burden for him is much higher than average politician: "Because he is a man of honor and distinction, even the appearance, would he want to do anything to even give the appearance of any impropriety? And because there were numerous reports of his contact with Ms. Iseman, of being in her clients -- using her corporate planes, the thought is that he would want to distance himself from anything that would give even the appearance of impropriety."
Black repeatedly described the Times as a liberal newspaper, concluding: "Senator McCain's integrity is intact. They don't have anything in there that proves otherwise, or even seriously alleges otherwise, so we want to make sure people understand the New York Times, the largest liberal newspaper is challenging the integrity with a false smear of the new conservative Republican nominee for president."
Then ABC turned to its expert on sex scandals, former Clinton spin control artist George Stephanopoulos. The real stand-out moment came at the beginning:
SAWYER: So, George, on the scandal Richter scale, one to ten, what does -- Where does this rank?
A six or a seven? Even if the Times has nothing approaching real evidence of a "romantic relationship"? Any conservative on the set would have asked him how he would rate the old Clinton scandals by comparison. In his old days, Stephanopoulos would have said the Gennifer Flowers story was a minus-one, Paula Jones was a zero. But the Iseman story is a six or seven?
Stephanopoulos said "it's not going to derail John McCain's nomination, assuming three conditions hold. Number one, that Ms. Iseman continues to deny any inappropriate relationship with Senator McCain. Number two, that no one can prove that special favors were given to Ms. Iseman. And then number three, and perhaps the most important, the New York Times quotes two anonymous sources who said they warned Senator McCain about this relationship and he conceded, admitted to them there was an inappropriate relationship. As long as those sources remain anonymous, they don't come forward publicly and challenge Senator McCain, I think that this story is survivable, even though it's damaging."
Then Sawyer turned it to the Times, and whether McCain would sue (which no public figure who knows libel law would consider):
SAWYER: Let me ask you about Mr. Black saying, oh, half a dozen times at least: The liberal New York Times, liberal New York Times. Is this going to rally the conservatives that have been a problem for Senator McCain? And he said there would be no liable suit, or certainly implied that. Short of that, what will they do with the New York Times?
For the record, Ingraham and Limbaugh on Thursday sounded a different first note than trashing the Times. Both hosts suggested that McCain should learn something from this, that his alleged friends in the media aren't his friends, that the moment he threatened their liberal goals, they would trash him. Ingraham compared him to Timothy Treadwell, the naturalist who tried to live with wild bears, until one killed him.
David Muir summarized the story (and ABC's take on it) in the 8 am newscast: "In the news this morning, John McCain is on the defensive as the New York Times reports allegations he may have had an inappropriate relationship with a female lobbyist during his run for president back in 2000. Sources tell the Times, McCain's top advisers were so convinced the friendship with Vicki Iseman had turned romantic that they tried to intervene to protect him. This morning on GMA, McCain's campaign dismissed the report in what it called the liberal New York Times."
Let's recall how ABC News covered Juanita Broaddrick's rape allegation against Bill Clinton in 1999: nothing on World News Tonight, nothing on Nightline, and on Good Morning America, a brief mention from Charles Gibson on February 19, after the Wall Street Journal published an interview with Broaddrick on its editorial page, which Gibson insisted was a strange place for it. (It was, but Gibson may have been winking to viewers that the editorial page is a right-wing mud hut inside the otherwise laudable newspaper.) and two questions to Clinton flack Paul Begala on March 1."Paul, this stuff doesn't go away. There's now a charge of sexual assault against the President, 20 years ago when he was Attorney General in Arkansas. Does he need to answer those charges directly?"
Obviously, with networks like these, he never did need to address the rape charge directly.
On Thursday's CBS Early Show, co-host Harry Smith teased upcoming coverage of accusations of John McCain having an affair with lobbyist Vicki Iseman: "And Republican front-runner John McCain blasted on the front pages of 'The New York Times'...not exactly the coverage you may be looking for if you're running for President." Later, Smith introduced the segment by exclaiming: "This bombshell report that Republican front-runner John McCain may have had a romantic relationship with a lobbyist who was a visitor to his office and traveled with him on a client's corporate jet."
Correspondent Nancy Cordes filed a report summarizing the New York Times: "According to the Times, the aides warned him he was risking his campaign and career because Iseman's firm had telecom clients with business before his Senate committee. They say quote, 'McCain acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance from Iseman.'"
[This item, by Kyle Drennen, was posted Thursday afternoon on the MRC's blog, NewsBusters.org: newsbusters.org ]
While Cordes also quoted the McCain campaign's reaction that the story was a "hit-and-run smear campaign," she described the article this way: "The story was co-authored by four of the Times' top political and investigative reporters and has reportedly been in the works for months."
After the report by Cordes, Smith talked to McCain campaign manager Rick Davis about the story. The interview took on the tone of a prosecutor grilling a suspect, rather than an objective inquiry:
When Davis concluded the segment by claiming that the Times article was nothing more than "innuendo and implications," a skeptical Smith replied: "Alright, we shall see."
Here's how CBS covered the Broaddrick story in 1999: one two-minute evening news story on Saturday, February 20, and nothing on the morning show, then called CBS This Morning.
Fox News political correspondent Carl Cameron revealed on Thursday's Fox and Friends that Fox News came across the rumors about John McCain last fall, but were "unable to substantiate any of it." In regards to the alleged affair with lobbyist Vicki Iseman, Cameron asserted that they "were able to find precisely nobody who would go on the record or even suggest off the record that there was truth to the suggestion that there had been any sort of an inappropriate personal relationship."
[This item was adopted from the NewsBusters post by Justin McCarthy: newsbusters.org ]
The transcript from 8:04 AM EST on February 21:
On Thursday's The View on ABC, Joy Behar floated a conspiracy theory about the New York Times hit piece on John McCain, asking if "there any possibility that the right wing of the party, the real conservative Limbaugh, Huckabee, that group, planted this article?" Behar maintained "they're the ones who are trying to really cut him out, cut his legs off," but with some self-awareness, Behar went on to wonder if that is "too conspiratorial?" Whoopi Goldberg then suggested "nothing is impossible" before Behar returned to how conservatives "have the motivation right now."
The February 21 show led off with the Times story. Joy Behar, to her credit, did express some skepticism of the report believing Iseman "has an ax to grind." Elisabeth Hasselbeck attacked the Times' liberal bias adding that this is a "smear campaign." Barbara Walters stepped in to defend the Times for delaying the story because "they had to get all of their facts together" and she was "not sure that it was a malicious attempt on the New York Times to do it right now." Hasselbeck added that she did indeed feel it was a malicious attempt.
[This item was adopted from the NewsBusters post by Justin McCarthy: newsbusters.org ]
JOY BEHAR: Is there any possibility that, I'm just throwing this out, and Bill O'Reilly will call me a "pinhead" for this. But is there any possibility that the right wing of the party, the real conservative Limbaugh, Huckabee, that group, planted this article? Like they're behind it?
-- Brent Baker