Newspaper Faces Questions About McCain Story

Thursday's report in The New York Times about possible impropriety between John McCain and a lobbyist is raising some questions about the newspaper's handling of the story. David Folkenflik talks to Alex Chadwick about how running a story like this leaves a news organization open to criticism.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And for more on the media side of this story, we're joined now by NPR's David Folkenflik. And David, a lot of criticism now about the New York Times itself. Do you think there will be some kind of blowback?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Well, you're starting to see that play out online. I mean obviously Senator McCain has made as a centerpiece of his record the notion that he's standing up - after the Keating Five scandal - standing up against lobbyists and corporate interests, the idea of the flow of money, and it opens himself up to these kinds of attention. That said, this story, if you look at its question of, in some ways, in reading it as the average person, it's promise unfulfilled.

That is, there's the question raised about whether he had a romantic involvement with a female lobbyist who had business before his committee. They don't resolve that. They cite concerns from sources that people in his staff had that worry themselves, but they don't answer the question. Again, there was a question of whether perhaps Senator McCain did favors for clients of this lobbyist.

And putting aside the question of romantic involvement, a lobbyist with whom he acknowledges a friendship, you know, was he doing that? Well, if you read the story carefully, they don't explicitly say that he did things he would not have done for other corporations, other people. So there's a bit of a promise unfulfilled and yet at the same time, you know, the Times can legitimately say Senator McCain has made the question of lobbying and campaign finance and of ethics in legislation a hallmark of his record, and this is a scrupulous look at that.

BRAND: And the Times does spend a considerable part of this story going over the Keating Five scandal from many, many years ago.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right.

BRAND: So - but to rely on this new part of the story, they rely a lot on, as we heard from Don, a lot on anonymous sources. I think there's only one named source in this story.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. And you know, we heard a moment ago, Don Gonyea rightly refer to the derision and contempt that Senator McCain had for the use of anonymous sources. Shouldn't be that surprising, very delicate questions, questions going fundamentally to Senator McCain's integrity on the lobbying side and about his personal life on the other, whether he had this romantic involvement, you know.

It shouldn't be surprising that it's used anonymous sources, you know. On delicate matters they tend to be more likely, and at the same time you have to be even more scrupulous about who it is you're talking to. You know, they said, I believe, that it was two aides who had become disillusioned with the Senator, were no longer working for him.

John Weaver, a former aide and currently informal advisor, you know, seemed to attest that there had been, or did directly affirm that there had been a meeting that he had had with Iseman at Union Station in Washington D.C. to relay concerns, but he did not confirm the question that there was a romantic aspect to that.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

David, we should note that we have asked the New York Times for its comment on publishing this story. They haven't spoken to us; they say they're not speaking to anyone else. There apparently is pressure because The New Republic magazine, at least according to the McCain campaign, was about to run a story on the internal debate within the New York Times on whether or not to run this story. What do you know about that?

FOLKENFLIK: That's exactly right. Gabe Sherman's a writer for The New Republic and, in fact, the magazine just published his piece minutes ago about the torturous path that this story took over the last several months. Drudge had posted an element back in December saying that this was happening. Bill Keller, the executive editor, kept pushing them for harder confirmation of this. And this was the story that ensued today.

CHADWICK: David Folkenflik, media correspondent for NPR. Thanks, David.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

BRAND: We're joined now by John Dickerson. He's chief political correspondent for Slate.com. And welcome back to DAY TO DAY, John.

Mr. JOHN DICKERSON (Slate.com): Thank you.

BRAND: You heard John McCain's news conference, his response to the New York Times story today. What impact do you think this will have on his campaign, if any?

Mr. DICKERSON: Well, it's never good when a candidate's wife has to come out in front of the cameras and say she trusts her husband. So this is a very bad day for John McCain. It's really hard to know how this will play out. I mean, the New York Times story kind of makes two charges. One is about a romance and one is about possible influence that a female lobbyist had on Senator McCain. It doesn't deliver on either.

If the story stops where it is now, the political damage may be limited. However, it may be the beginning of a series of stories. Or sometimes these kinds of stories kick off several others, and that could lead to political damage.

BRAND: He's already fighting for support from evangelicals and from the conservative side of the Republican Party. Could this hurt him or, perversely, help him, because being, you know, quote-unquote, "attacked" by the New York Times might be seen as a badge of honor.

Mr. DICKERSON: The evangelical leaders who don't like John McCain will probably side with the New York Times, which might put them in an uncomfortable position, but he was never going to get them back anyway.

In terms of evangelicals and conservatives, this is probably a wash for the senator as it stands right now. The story, of course, though, is still developing.

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