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Postman on Politics

Chief political reporter David Postman explores state, regional and national politics.

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February 21, 2008 11:04 AM

McCain and the New York Times

Posted by David Postman

By now I’m sure you’ve read the New York Times story about John McCain and his close relationship with a female lobbyist.

I had wanted to write about the piece when I saw it this morning. I then felt compelled to do so when Josh Feit took to the Slog to criticize the story by saying, “I hate to go all Postman on you guys,” but that the story wouldn’t have met Stranger standards.

(I like the idea of making Postman a verb meaning to “oppose the sloppy use of unnamed sources,” or even "to get on your high horse about using anonymous sources. Either way, it's nicer than how I know it’s used by my bosses to mean “to never be satisfied with story play.)

Feit is right about the Times story. It’s built on a questionable foundation of unnamed sources.
There’s a link to the story on our homepage now, though in the paper this morning we put the Washington Post’s chase on the front page.

But the paragraph that jumped out at me is the one that I call the “justification graf.” This is the place where the anonymous allegations that suggest an illicit relationship are rationalized in NYT-speak and given the polish of a far-reaching Times story.

But the concerns about Mr. McCain’s relationship with Ms. Iseman underscored an enduring paradox of his post-Keating career. Even as he has vowed to hold himself to the highest ethical standards, his confidence in his own integrity has sometimes seemed to blind him to potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest.

See, it’s not about his relationship with the comely lobbyist. It’s that the relationship sums up niecly an important theme in McCain’s public career. You can imagine the newsroom argument -- and more on that in a moment -- that this isn’t about someone’s personal life but underscores an “enduring paradox” about the likely Republican presidential nominee.

That is the graf meant to move this story from a sensational gotcha to a probing piece of McCain's inner demons.

The Times timing on the story is odd, with it appearing when McCain has apparently locked up the nomination. If this was an important story about McCain it is too bad it didn’t emerge in time for McCain’s opponents and the press to ask him about it during the primary season.

That the story was in the works has been known since December when Matt Drudge posted a bit about it.

And now we learn from The New Republic that there were internal newsroom debates about the story. In fact, it looks like TNR’s decision to publish this morning may have pushed the Times into finally posting the story on line last night and putting it in this morning's papers. Writing in the New Republic, Noam Scheiber made clear -- along with documenting the internal battles at the Times -- that he doesn’t think much of the story that made it into print.

The story is filled with awkward journalistic moves -- the piece contains a collection of decade-old stories about McCain and Iseman appearing at functions together and concerns voiced by McCain's aides that the Senator shouldn't be seen in public with Iseman -- and departs from the Times' usual authoritative voice. At one point, the piece suggestively states: "In 1999 she began showing up so frequently in his offices and at campaign events that staff members took notice. One recalled asking, 'Why is she always around?'" In the absence of concrete, printable proof that McCain and Iseman were an item, the piece delicately steps around purported romance and instead reports on the debate within the McCain campaign about the alleged affair.

As you think about this chain of events -- from someone in the Times, to Drudge, to the New Republic and back to the Times finally publishing the report -- remember that a very similar series of events brought the name of Monica Lewinsky into the public domain. That all began when Drudge reported that Newsweek had spiked a story about President Clinton and the intern, pushing the newsweekly and every other news organization, into publishing a series of allegations.

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