An article about Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) relationship with a female lobbyist published in The New York Times on February 21 prompted an immediate backlash from the McCain campaign and media commentators who raised questions about the Times’ ethics and its use of confidential sources.
The article, entitled “For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk,” examined the senator’s relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman, who “had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet” around the time of his 2000 presidential campaign. The article touched on McCain’s involvement in the “Keating Five” ethics scandal in the late 1980s, discussed his efforts after the scandal to bill himself as the enemy of special interests and a champion of campaign finance reform, and questioned the appropriateness of a close relationship with a lobbyist in light of that image. The article is available online at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/21/us/politics/21mccain.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&sq=For%20McCain&st=nyt&scp=8.
The Washington Post released a story the same day that examined McCain’s relationship with Iseman, but did not address the possibility that the two had been romantically involved.
The fact that the Times’ story cited anonymous sources within McCain’s campaign as being “convinced the relationship had become romantic,” however, ignited a furor. The Times wrote that “top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself,” but did not say who they were. The only source who discussed the relationship on the record was John Weaver, a former top strategist for McCain. According to a February 24 follow-up column by Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt, Weaver told the Times he had arranged a meeting at Union Station in Washington in which Iseman was asked to stay away from the senator because her presence could undermine the message of McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign, “taking on the special interests.”
The McCain campaign responded immediately. On the morning of February 21, campaign manager Rick Davis appeared on the CBS “Early Show” calling the story “the worst kind of tabloid journalism.” McCain and his wife hosted a press conference at 9 a.m. the same day, saying he would not respond to the story. A Politico.com story entitled “McCain Turns Tables on Times,” reported that a McCain aide said of the counter effort, “We wanted to be fast, forward-leaning and as open and transparent as possible.” New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller defended his decision to approve the story’s publication. “They’re trying to change the subject to us,” he said of the Republican attacks.
By the end of the day on February 21, conservatives were attacking The Times for its timing. The Washington Post reported that some thought the publication was calculated, as Rush Limbaugh suggested when he called the story “gossip” released “just prior to McCain wrapping up the nomination.” The Washington Post also reported that critics had suggested the story should have been released earlier to better inform Republican primary voters. Keller wrote that he had waited until he felt the story was “ready,” which “means we have the facts nailed down to our satisfaction,” and “the story is written in a way that’s fair and balanced and has all the context and caveats.”
“You can’t let the electoral calendar govern your judgment about when to publish stories,” Keller said.
Hoyt’s February 24 column suggested that the use of anonymous sources in such an explosive story was one of the reasons that the newspaper received so much criticism. He wrote that “the stakes were just too high,” 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.”
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism, also criticized the use of anonymous sources by the Times. He told the Washington Post that the Times’ reliance on the “suspicions” of “unnamed sources” was a problem. “We’re not in an age of trust-me journalism,” Rosenstiel said. Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland wrote that the Times story was “seriously undersourced.” On Marketwatch.com, John Friedman accused the Times of using “purple prose,” and violating a “cardinal rule” of journalism by publishing a “scandalous rumor” without being able to substantiate it. Friedman wrote that Keller’s unwillingness to apologize for the story was “troubling.”
Some major newspapers explained their choice not to run the story. David McCumber, managing editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, wrote that the story had “serious flaws,” and called it “a candidate profile based on a lot of old anecdotes.” The New York Times Company-owned Boston Globe ran the Washington Post’s version of the story instead.
Cleveland Plain Dealer Editor Susan Goldberg opted to run the Washington Post piece in her paper as well, but received complaints anyway. Ted Diadiun, ombudsman for the Plain Dealer, wrote February 24 that “angry readers who called Thursday, argu[ed] that by reporting it at all, The Plain Dealer was giving it credence.” Diadiun wrote that his paper had a duty to report the news: “The story was out there anyway,” he wrote, “whether we did something with it or not.”
Some in the media agreed that the Times’ story was an important one, but that its inclusion of the suggestion of romance undermined its better points. Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center and professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, told Minneapolis’ WCCO-TV for its February 21 “Good Question” segment, “[The alleged romance] wasn’t the sole aspect [of the Times’ story] and it isn’t the only aspect that ought to be of interest to the voting public. In a way, inserting the sexual angle has sort of deflected public attention from what I personally regard as the more important question: which is, ‘is [McCain] acting as an independent legislator, or is he in somebody’s pocket?’”
Alex Jones, director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics & Public Policy, told the Washington Post that the story was “absolutely appropriate. When you run for president, you should have your record scrutinized closely in every respect.” Jones, a former Times reporter, said the paper demonstrated that McCain and Iseman had “a very close relationship. ... The only thing that seems to be in dispute is whether it was a romantic relationship, and that, frankly, is the least important part of it.”
Jack Shafer, editor at large for the Web site Slate, said many of the story’s critics missed the point. “The Times doesn’t have to produce photographic evidence of the hot dog meeting the bun to cast suspicion upon the McCain-Iseman intimacies,” Shafer wrote in his February 21 Pressbox column, available at http://www.slate.com/id/2184893. “If McCain were as close to a male lobbyist as he is Iseman, I’d want the Times to report it.”
Hoyt lamented the distraction the romantic allegations created, writing, “The pity of it is that, without the sex, The Times was on to a good story.”
– Sara Cannon
Silha Center Staff