Attack of the Keller Tomatoes
The New York Times tries to "swift boat" McCain.

The American Spectator, May 2008

Some things are so obvious, it is surprising when someone has to say them:

A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. . . .

If you cannot provide readers with some independent evidence, I think it is wrong to report the suppositions or concerns of anonymous aides about whether the boss is getting into the wrong bed.

But New York Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt did have to say it. He was weighing in on the John McCain affair--or, rather, on the paper's bizarre behavior in reporting, a few days earlier, that in 1999 McCain had spent some time with a female lobbyist. According to the story, produced by a team of six reporters, "some of the senator's advisers"--not named by the Times--became "concerned that the relationship had become romantic." The Times had found no evidence that these putative concerns had been warranted. Yet nine years later, with McCain the presumptive nominee, this was front-page news. Why?

Hoyt's criticism of his employer was relatively gentle, as it tends to be. The Times report had drawn howls of outrage, and not only from conservatives. Executive editor Bill Keller, who reportedly had sat on the story for at least two months before publishing it in February, was on the defensive. He couldn't understand why everyone focused so much on the sex rumors when there were other rumors too.

Those other rumors had just as much substance behind them. For example, McCain "often flew on the corporate jets of business executives seeking his support." But "last year he voted to end the practice"--which means that when he did it, it was perfectly legal. And he "helped found a nonprofit group" to push for "tighter campaign finance rules." But he "resigned as its chairman after news reports disclosed that the group was tapping the same kinds of unlimited corporate contributions he opposed, including those from companies seeking his favor." If the group wasn't living up to his standards, was he supposed to stay on?

In an interview with National Public Radio, Keller explained why he believed a story with such a minuscule fact-to-rumor ratio was newsworthy:

"He [McCain] came back from Vietnam a hero, entered into public life and then was felled by the Keating Five scandal, if you read his books. It was clearly a humiliating event for him. And he subsequently built his political life on themes of redemption, reform, you know, rectitude, if you will--and became the scourge of lobbyists, the champion of campaign finance reform, and so on, in Washington.

"Yet, according to some people who knew him best, he can be surprisingly careless about his reputation, and that's what I think this, his relationship with this particular lobbyist illustrates, although I think there's a lot of other illustrations as well in the piece."

In other words, McCain has put forward a narrative about his own personal and political character--a narrative that "some people who know him best" think is at odds with the truth. What is newsworthy about the Times story, according to Keller, is that it lets the public know that not everyone in a position to know buys into the McCain narrative.

The New York Times, by publishing this story, put itself in a position analogous to that of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth vis-à-vis John Kerry. When Kerry sought the White House in 2004, his narrative centered on his having been a Vietnam war hero. "Yet, according to some people who knew him best," this narrative was at odds with the truth.

The voters learned this not from news reports but from the Swift Boat Veterans, a political advocacy group, which built a case against Kerry based in part on claims that were unsubstantiated because they were unverifiable (he faked his medals) and in part on facts that were a matter of public record (he slandered his fellow servicemen after returning home). Because of the latter element, there was more substance to the Swift Boat Veterans' attack on Kerry than to the Times's attack on (sorry, "story about") McCain.

The Swift Boat Veterans were a political group with open political goals. By contrast, the Times (at least on its news pages) is supposed to report the news, not take sides. Yet the Times and most other mainstream media, having for the most part uncritically accepted the Kerry narrative, sided with him and vilified the Swift Boat Veterans.

In both 2004 and 2008, news organizations' taking of sides was problematic. What was unusual about the McCain episode is that the Times was both so aggressive in pursuing its target and so heedless of the basic journalistic obligation to make sure its facts were solid, or at least existent. Yet as to the reporters' and editors' motives, ombudsman Hoyt dismissed the obvious suspicion with a casual pair of scare quotes:

The article had repercussions for both McCain and The Times. He may benefit, at least in the short run, from a conservative backlash against the "liberal" New York Times.
Hoyt noted that the Times "found itself in the uncomfortable position of being the story as much as publishing the story." But "as much as" understates the case. A Times follow-up story, two days after the original, carried the headline "In Aftermath of Article, McCain Gathers Donations." Not "In Aftermath of Scandal," or "In Aftermath of Revelations," but "In Aftermath of Article." The Times itself thus accurately portrayed the publication of the article--as distinct from whatever news it might have contained--as a politically significant act.

For decades, young would-be muckrakers have looked to the example of Woodward and Bernstein's Watergate reporting, which helped bring down a president. But can you imagine picking up the Washington Post on August 9, 1974, and reading the headline "In Aftermath of Articles, Nixon Resigns"?

The Times's clumsy handling of the affair may prove to have been a blessing for McCain in more ways than one. In its first follow-up, the paper reported:

Mr. McCain said he knew nothing about an account in The Times from John Weaver, a former top McCain strategist and now an informal campaign adviser, who told the newspaper that he met with Ms. Iseman at Union Station in Washington at the time of Mr. McCain's first run for president in 1999 and told her to stay away from the senator. "I don't know anything about it," Mr. McCain said. "Since it was in The New York Times, I don't take it at face value."
McCain, the Republican "maverick," has long had an amicable, even mutually admiring, relationship with mainstream journalists. The Times itself had endorsed him in the New York primary, opining that he "has demonstrated that he has the character to stand on principle." This experience may serve McCain well by leading him to a more realistic view of the role that the mainstream media, and especially the Times, have come to play in American politics. If he internalizes the lesson, he will understand that the old gray lady is not his friend and at least sometimes is his enemy.

Next article: Vast Company (The American Spectator, 6/08)

Previous article: Fanfare for the Column Man (4/30/08)

Go to main list