N.Y. Times Gets Flak From All Sides on Explosive Story

"CBS News RAW": GOP Sen. John McCain denies wrongdoing in response to a New York Times article suggesting he had an inappropriate relationship with a female lobbyist. Video by CBSNEWS.com
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 22, 2008

It had all the ingredients: a leading newspaper, a presidential candidate, anonymous sources, shadowy lobbying, a hint of hypocrisy and denials of extramarital romance.

That combustible combination guaranteed that the surfacing of a long-rumored New York Times story about John McCain and a Washington lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, would ignite a fierce controversy, not just about the Arizona senator but about the newspaper's conduct as well.

Bill Keller, the paper's executive editor, dismissed a cascade of attacks yesterday accusing the Times of politically motivated sensationalism. "They're trying to change the subject to us," Keller said in an interview. McCain's advisers, he said, are attempting "to use the New York Times as an opportunity to rally the base."

Critics were hurling conflicting charges yesterday. Some said the story was unsubstantiated and should not have been published. Others complained that the Times should have run it sooner, so that voters in the early Republican primaries could have weighed the allegations. Those critics accused Keller of sitting on the story until McCain had time to secure the Republican nomination.

Keller denied deliberately delaying the story, saying that would have put him in the position of withholding important information from voters. "You can't let the electoral calendar govern your judgment about when to publish stories," he said.

Minutes after the Times posted the piece on its Web site Wednesday night, conservative commentators -- who had recently been ripping McCain's White House candidacy -- rallied to his side against one of their perennial targets.

Why, Bay Buchanan asked on CNN, didn't the Times run the piece in December, before primary voters went to the polls? Rush Limbaugh yesterday said the story -- which said McCain aides nearly a decade ago feared that the senator was having a romantic relationship with Iseman -- is "gossip" that the Times put out "just prior to McCain wrapping up the nomination." Fox's Sean Hannity called the article a "disgrace."

Media analysts are divided over the bombshell piece, which relied heavily on unnamed sources. If the Times couldn't make the case that McCain and Iseman had an intimate relationship -- and both have denied it -- was it fair to raise the issue? If a crucial allegation was that McCain aides, in 1999 and 2000, told the senator they were worried that the relationship appeared inappropriate and warned Iseman to stay away from their boss, is that worthy of front-page display? If the relevance rests on McCain having written letters to federal regulators nearly a decade ago that would have benefited Iseman's telecommunications clients, is that less newsworthy because it was reported at the time?

"This is a story that rests on the suspicions, unproven, of unnamed sources," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism. "That creates a problem for the New York Times. We're not in an age of trust-me journalism. . . . What you have is a story that some staffers were worried about something. Their worries could well be unfounded, and we don't know that."

But Alex Jones, who runs Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics & Public Policy, called the story "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."

The Beltway began buzzing about the Times investigation in December when Matt Drudge reported its existence on his Internet gossip site. The next day, The Washington Post reported that McCain had taken the unusual step of hiring criminal lawyer Robert Bennett to handle the inquiry, and that McCain had called Keller to deny the allegations and complain that he was being treated unfairly.

Although there were disputes within the Times over the story, Keller said he simply waited until it was ready. " 'Ready' means we've got the facts nailed down to our satisfaction," he said. "We've given the subjects of the story ample time to respond. The story is written in a way that's fair and balanced and has all the context and caveats."

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