The New York Times, John McCain, and the Abuse of Ethics Reporting

Keeping politicians accountable for their moral and ethical conduct is one of the most important tasks the media can perform.  Abusing the right of oversight, as The New York Times appears to have done this morning, undermines the media, the political system, and future efforts to uphold high moral standards in public life.

The Gray Lady appears to be in hotter water than John McCain after publishing a story suggesting the likely GOP presidential nominee had an affair with a lobbyist in the last 1990s and did her favors on legislative issues.

Critics are pounding on the Times because the story is based exclusively on anonymous sources and innuendo.  According to The New Republic, “Time magazine managing editor Rick Stengel told MSNBC that he wouldn't have published such a piece.”

The Times article, under investigation since early October, cites unnamed former McCain staffers who claim that top advisers “repeatedly confronted” the Arizona senator about the relationship.  The advisers reportedly “warned away” lobbyist Vicki Iseman in an effort to “protect the candidate from himself.”  At the time, McCain was competing for the 2000 GOP presidential nomination.

Both McCain and Iseman have denied, on the record, that they had a romantic relationship or that McCain did special favors for Iseman's clients. 

The New Republic writes that Times executive editor Bill Keller, concerned about the direct denials, decided in December to hold up the piece “in part because they could not secure documentary proof of the alleged affair beyond anecdotal evidence.”

Thinking they had nailed down the story, the four Times reporters working the story were furious.  Somebody leaked the story to the Drudge Report, which observed that Keller “expressed serious reservations about journalism ethics and issuing a damaging story so close to an election.” 

Today's Times story cites none of the documentary evidence Keller reportedly wanted.  So why did the Times run the story today when it wasn't ready to go in December, at least in the eyes of the top editor at the newspaper, and apparently no new information has surfaced? 

Wait a minute, not exactly “no” new information.  The McCain campaign furnished the Times with examples of McCain voting against the expressed interests of Iseman and her clients.  Somehow, none of this information made it into the story.

Nobody can say for sure why the story ran today, but the Times's clumsiness has opened the door to all sorts of speculation.  Conservative Christian leader Gary Bauer told One News Now that the Times is just acting true to form: “left-wing newspapers will go after conservative politicians in order to undermine them with Christian conservatives.” The New Republic says the Times was trying to avoid being embarrassed by an impending story about the paper's infighting.  Perhaps the Times feared being scooped by The Washington Post, which printed a similar story today with a named source saying he warned off the lobbyist.    

Perhaps the Times knew in December that they planned to endorse McCain, and they didn't want to damage their fair-haired boy's chances of winning the GOP presidential nomination.  Perhaps they were helping the Democrats by promoting a vulnerable Republican who was about to be mired in scandal. 

None of this really matters.  The failure of the Times to include McCain's exculpatory evidence suggests strongly that the Times was playing politics.  Whether the Times was motivated by partisanship, ideology, professional rivalry or fear of embarrassment, virtually nobody in America believes the paper was simply doing the important job it's supposed to do: keeping politicians accountable for their moral and ethical conduct.

The Times has betrayed its trust.

Brian Fitzpatrick is senior editor at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.