Watchdog or Bomb Thrower?
The rapid response of the McCain team was certainly effective as right wing critics who wanted none of the maverick candidate rallied behind him as the "Gray Lady" took her shots. He held a press conference first thing in the morning when the story hit page one, answering questions from all comers and citing his disappointment in the paper that endorsed him only four weeks earlier. In all likelihood, McCain will weather this passing storm and his campaign will live on for what promises to be an epic battle this fall against the likes of Sen. Obama or Sen. Clinton.
The larger issue are the methods employed by the Times in releasing this story, namely their use of anonymous sources. The story landed above the fold and ran a full 75 inches. It began and ended with the allegations of a potentially romantic relationship with a lobbyist who conducted business before McCain's committee (both denied this charge), and cited two anonymous sources close to the campaign in 2000 when the infractions supposedly took place. This was wrapped around a story that spoke of McCain's frenetic on-again, off-again relationship with lobbyists in general and his efforts to reform the system as a result in light of his ties to the Keating Five scandal of the 1980's.
The Washington Post ran a similar story, but without the romantic innuendo. Both had information suggesting that McCain and Iseman were friends, that his campaign staffers were concerned that the relationship threatened his image as a reformer, and that meeting between the Iseman and a high-level staffer occurred where she was told to distance herself from the candidate to avoid charges of impropriety. Most critics in the field have suggested that this was the preferred route of addressing a newsworthy story in a responsible manner.
Additionally, the Times conveniently used legislation that allegedly showed that McCain worked for the interests of the telecommunications industry Iseman lobbied for, when it could be argued that deregulation is in line with his libertarian economic tendencies. Moreover, the story fails to document the legislation supported by McCain that conflicted with the industry's interest. Telling half a story in a lengthy piece is simply unacceptable.
I first caught wind of the story during my morning workout as news streamed across the network and cable morning shows. They focused extensively on the story's lead, picturing McCain and the lobbyist side-by-side in separate photos, losing the larger message embedded in the story, and implicating guilt by default. Journalists ethicists tell us that sequencing is everything, as is the competition between eyes and ears, where the former always wins.
Also important is the backstory here. The Times has been working on this piece since November, and there was tension in the newsroom as the editors demanded verification of the alleged ties. The Drudge Report first aired public details of the story in December, triggering a New Republic piece on the tension between Times writers and editors. It ran on Thursday, the same day as the Times piece, but the latter was posted on the web by Wednesday evening. According to Times executive editor Bill Keller, there is no connection between this sequence of events and the fact that the story ran when it did. The story was merely being vetted by lawyers and finally reached his desk as of last Tuesday.
Regardless of what account we choose to believe, the Times would have done all of its readers a service by shedding a light on these inner newsroom workings. In response, many newspapers across the country refused to run the Times story, opting for the tamer Post piece. In an article that could have derailed the nomination of a lesser candidate, McCain arguably emerges stronger as his party and the conservatives that make up its base coalesce around their presumptive nominee, for better or worse. The Times, on the other hand, raised even more questions about its objectivity, as conservatives shun the "newspaper of record" and the industry itself questions the integrity of its standard-bearer.
Without doubt the press plays a pivotal role in vetting our political candidates and has not only a right, but also a responsibility to hold our elected leaders accountable. If McCain used the spoils of office to further his own career, than the Times and every other enterprising newspaper should dig for every scrap of information that would make such a case. In my mind, it failed on this ground in a story that is dated, relies almost entirely on sources we cannot confirm, and places the burden of proof not on the candidate, but the "Gray Lady" herself.