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Friday, February 22, 2008

Nasty Little Slap

In a Politico piece this morning, Jonathan Martin and Mike Allen) take a little swipe at the “commentators on the right” in reference to the McCain/New York Times story. Their contention seems to be that McCain killed the potential damage from the NYT piece by “sophisticated 24-hour counterattack” against the story and was aided by right leaning journalists, bloggers, radio personalities (who all, I suppose, make up the commentariat of the right) and their aversion to all things Gray Lady.

While I do tend to view much of what comes out of the NYT with a little more cynicism than many newspapers, it’s just as true that I went to read the story worried heavily about the damage that it would cause. I went assuming that it would be a well-researched, well-written, and campaign-derailing article; else why was it published in the Times?

See, my actually assumption was that there would be some substance to the story and some accusations made. There weren’t. It was very simply one of the worst pieces of investigative journalism that I’ve read from the Times--although it would have been a high water mark for something like Denver’s Westword. Apparently, that isn’t how Martin and Allen see things.

Few commentators on the right—including some who regularly denounce ethical lapses or weaknesses of the flesh among Democrats—paused to assess seriously whether the Times’s suggestions of conflict of interest were well-founded.

Instead, many swallowed past misgivings about McCain to rally to his defense, on the apparent theory that anyone under assault by the most powerful institution in the mainstream media could not be all bad.

If that article had contained anything reliable, anything substantial, I think that the conservative call would not have been to circle the wagons; the call would have been to get McCain to bow out and figure out how to get Romney back in the game. Conservatives aren’t as suicidal as recent buzz words might indicate, and what saved McCain from an already skeptical base wasn’t a rallying instinct, but a story that never should have run. Outside of the insinuation that McCain was cheating on his wife, there wasn’t much new in the story--with the oldest allegations dating back to the Keating 5 scandal. Honestly, people have already made up their minds on these things and it was the sex angle that was being used to lead and sell the story.

Martin and Allen, though, seemed to have seen more substance in the story than most people, suggesting that if the Times had been more aggressive in its defense, people might have been persuaded that there was more to the story than McCain’s denials of wrongdoing.

Not long after the network and cable morning news shows led with the story, top McCain supporters appeared on the same programs to chastise the Times and denigrate the story. Conservative publications including The American Spectator and Human Events weighed in to defend McCain. By late morning, Shirley’s firm had lined up a half-dozen conservative leaders to attack the Times, and booked guests on dozens of radio and cable television shows. In addition, Black, Bennett and Davis all made the rounds.

Also on in the morning and for the rest of the day was Todd Harris, a top aide in Fred Thompson’s campaign who had previously worked for McCain in 2000.

The Times did not immediately defend itself, letting the story speak for itself until Executive Editor Bill Keller issued a statement Thursday morning saying the account was “nailed down to our satisfaction.”

With silence from the paper, the McCain campaign was free to frame the debate.

What debate? The Times ran a story that was undeniably inflammatory in purpose, but never got around to making any real allegations. It never said that McCain did anything inappropriate. It said that McCain might have appeared to do something inappropriate, but we’re really not sure and there’s no real evidence (at least none on offer in the article) to support full blown allegations.

There was no debate to frame: without an accusation to defend, without named sources to rely on, without a smoking gun (or a stained blue dress), there was only McCain saying, “I didn’t do anything” and journalists saying “what was this story about?”

Honestly, if you look at some of the staff of NRO, I would imagine that there were a few writers who would have been damned near giddy to jump on a McCain-killing story.

But even if you’re skeptical of the right wing reaction, other outlets said essentially the same thing. John Friedman at Marketwatch, who I wouldn’t categorize as one of the “commentators on the right” had this to say in his article:

The Times violated a basic tenet of journalism: Either you have the story, or you don’t. If you have the goods, put the story on page one and shout about it from rooftops. If you don’t, delete the flimsy, unsupported stuff. Like my professors at the Medill School of Journalism used to preach: When in doubt, leave it out.

No newspaper should feel a need to swing at every pitch, especially one with the reputation of The New York Times.

Absolutely right, and I think quite a few publications of less stature than the Times would have passed on that article. The Boston Globe, for example, chose not to run its parent paper’s story in favor of running the WaPo’s stripped down version which “focused almost exclusively on the pervasive presence of lobbyists in McCain’s campaign.”

The Huffington Post, no friend of the right, had a story by Jay Rosen that posed its own questions and concerns:

Lots of people will be asking: did the Times have the goods, enough facts to even run this story? (National Review’s Rich Lowry says no, and many others will be saying the same thing today.) I notice that the Washington Post essentially ran the same story today, minus the innuendo about an affair. It leads with the strongest fact to emerge from the Times account: that former McCain aide John Weaver had met with the women in question to ask her to stay away, a meeting--and an agenda--that Weaver confirmed to the Times and the Post. If there’s any “hard” news in these accounts to support the appearance of ethical taint, that is it. But the Post left out the, “Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened...” part, which makes the Times story far more explosive, and more of an event within the 08 campaign. Which makes me wonder why the Times didn’t run a G-rated version scrupulously free of tabloid stuff.

For a good overview of the questions raised--by the left and by the right--over the Times article, check out Howard Kurtz’s WaPo piece.

The New York Times shouldn’t have run unsubstantiated gossip--and that is, in the final analysis, what they did with reference to the insinuation that McCain had a sexual relationship with Iseman. It isn’t blind partisanship to suggest that this was a piece unworthy of the Times or any other reputable news outlet, and the Politico’s suggestion to the contrary is offensive. My opinion on the piece wasn’t framed by the McCain machine--or by anything other than seeing the link on Drudge--it was framed by reading the actual article and finding myself baffled by its lack of substance. I doubt that I’m alone in that.

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