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With Allegations of Impropriety, the Charges Can Bounce Both Ways

John McCain may be on the hot seat, but he's not alone.
John McCain may be on the hot seat, but he's not alone. (Photo By J.d. Pooley -- Getty Images)

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 25, 2008

When Gennifer Flowers held a news conference in 1992 to announce that she had carried on an affair with Bill Clinton, the New York Times devoted one paragraph of a news story to her charges.

"I am ashamed for my profession," Max Frankel, then the paper's editor, said afterward. "We don't want to report on the candidates' sex lives."

Last week, when the Times quoted unnamed former associates of John McCain as saying they believed, in 1999, that he had an extramarital relationship with Washington lobbyist Vicki Iseman, a huge controversy erupted. This time, though, it was the Times that was harshly criticized.

To be sure, the piece included significant details about whether the Arizona senator had done legislative favors for Iseman's clients. And unlike the tabloid Star, which paid Flowers a six-figure sum, the Times has won dozens of Pulitzers for aggressive journalism. But with McCain and Iseman both denying an inappropriate relationship, a rough consensus is emerging among journalists that the Times story was fatally flawed.

Leave aside the uninformed charges that the story was politically timed. Forget for a moment that the key sources were granted anonymity. What, in the end, did the paper have? "Disillusioned" former McCain aides who say they were worried that their boss appeared too close to a lobbyist and tried to shoo her away. Details about letters to federal regulators that were mostly old news. And, of course, the suggestion of sex, the rocket fuel that boosted the story into the media stratosphere.

In a marked change since the Flowers era, the mere fact that a news organization is pursuing a scandal routinely leaks out. Matt Drudge became famous for reporting in 1998 that Newsweek had spiked a story about a special prosecutor investigating President Clinton's relationship with Monica Lewinsky. It was hardly surprising when Drudge's gossip site reported in December that Times staffers were pursuing the McCain story. Dissatisfied journalists tend to be talkative.

Twenty-one years after Miami Herald reporters staked out a townhouse where Gary Hart was having a rendezvous with Donna Rice, news organizations are still uncomfortable with stories about sex and political figures. There is, still, considerable agonizing over such pieces: Do we have enough evidence? How long ago did it happen? Is it relevant to the official's performance or just titillation disguised as serious journalism?

Several controversies have involved The Post. In 1992, the paper drew criticism for waiting until three weeks after then-Sen. Bob Packwood was reelected to report that 10 women had accused him of sexual harassment; editors said the story hadn't been ready earlier. (The Oregonian said it should have pursued the allegations against its home-state senator more aggressively, especially since Packwood had kissed one of its reporters.)

In 1994, The Post spent three months investigating Paula Jones's charge that Clinton, while Arkansas governor, had asked her for oral sex in a hotel room. Conservative critics accused the paper of sitting on the story. The Post ran a front-page piece after Jones sued Clinton (a move that ultimately led to his impeachment after he dissembled before a grand jury about his relationship with Lewinsky).

Two years later, both The Post and Time magazine decided against running pieces documenting that Bob Dole, then the GOP presidential nominee, had had an affair that began in 1968, while he was married to his first wife. Post Editor Leonard Downie Jr. said later that he based his decision on the fact that the matter did not involve Dole's public office and was nearly three decades old. The National Enquirer broke the story shortly before Election Day.

In early 1999, NBC came under tremendous pressure for holding, for more than a month, Lisa Myers's interview with Juanita Broaddrick, an Arkansas woman who charged that Clinton had sexually assaulted her in 1978. Clinton denied the allegation, and while The Post and the Wall Street Journal editorial page had reported Broaddrick's account, a television interview would have been explosive, as the Senate was preparing to vote on Clinton's impeachment. NBC executives, who ran the story after Clinton's acquittal, said the network needed more time to investigate.

Liberal anger over the Lewinsky probe sparked numerous efforts at revenge against Republican congressmen, such as Salon's report that Henry Hyde had had an affair 30 years earlier, and Hustler magazine's investigation of extramarital activities involving Bob Livingston, who resigned as he was about to become House speaker.


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