Hear more from "New York Times" Executive Editor Bill Keller:
Keller on why McCain's relationship with a lobbyist matters
Keller on the use of anonymous sources for the McCain article
Thursday's controversial scoop in The New York Times started with a tip about a confrontation between Arizona Sen. John McCain and some of his staff involving a lobbyist during his first run for the presidency in 2000, according to the newspaper Executive Editor Bill Keller.
Then, Keller says, the story became more complex.
"If, hypothetically, we had established that he had a romantic relationship with a lobbyist — and had done favors for that lobbyist — that would have been a different story," he says.
But the newspaper was not able to confirm any relationship. Instead, Keller tells NPR that the article that ran Thursday morning provided a slightly different insight into one of the nation's leading candidates for president.
"It's not a 'gotcha' story about some kind of quid pro quo," he says. "We don't know if there was a quid or a quo in this case. What we do know is that people very close to him, who watched him day after day, were worried enough by his behavior that they felt that he was endangering his career."
The editors and four reporters at the Times who were involved in the story wrestled for months over this potentially explosive scoop. But what did they have?
As far back as December, the reporters thought they could show an inappropriate relationship between McCain and telecommunications lobbyist Vicki Iseman. Some of her clients had business before the Senator Commerce Committee that McCain then chaired. The reporters wanted the story in print — and Gabe Sherman wrote about the reporters' frustrations in a piece posted Thursday by The New Republic.
"Oftentimes, the reporters will have reporting and just such a strong intimate sense of the story that they know it to be true. They know it in their veins to be true. And, there's always that editor that says, 'What can we print? What can we go with?'" Sherman says.
Keller wanted harder proof — and that took more reporting. Meanwhile, McCain called Keller to complain that the reporters' questions about his personal life were spurring rumors around town. He urged the editor to hurry up and wrap up his staffers' reporting. Blogger Matt Drudge splashed a gossipy item about it on his Web site in December.
But the story did not run until late February — and that has prompted questions about the timing. Did the newspaper hold the article while McCain's nomination by the Republican Party was in doubt? Or, was its hand forced by the imminent appearance of Sherman's magazine article on the newspaper's handling of the story?
Keller says the piece ran only because it was finally ready.
Keller says the relevance of McCain's relationship to Iseman stems from his political identity as someone who wages war against monied powerbrokers seeking to exert influence on Capitol Hill.
"He came back from Vietnam a hero, entered into public life and then was felled by the Keating Five scandal," Keller says. "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," Keller says. "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."
Thursday morning, McCain played media critic during a news conference to deny the relationship. He also denied that he had done any corporation any favors, assailing the Times' reliance on anonymous sources.
Keller says the Times is judicious in relying on unnamed sources in the McCain story.
"Obviously, you would like to have not just on-the-record sources, but documentary evidence for everything you put in the newspaper," Keller says. "But if you refused to publish stories that included anonymously sourced information, most of the most important things we know about how our country is run would not published. There are things you just cannot find without being willing to protect your sources."
The McCain camp and the Republican Party also sent out fundraising appeals accusing the Times of a sleazy smear.
Sherman says McCain is looking to change the subject.
"The McCain campaign is looking to make this a media story and a referendum on the Times' journalistic standards," he said.
The episode was enough, at least for the moment, to rally the right to his defense, including such luminaries as talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who has attacked McCain repeatedly this year as insufficiently conservative.
Conservative media critic Brent Bozell took a shot on the Fox News Channel, by saying that The New York Times is giving the National Enquirer a bad name.
Some non-ideological critics focused on the failure to prove the affair, or the favoritism.
Keller says that misses the point.
"I think the story that emerged is actually bigger, and more important and maybe more subtle," he says. "There's not a big market for subtle these days but I think it's an important story."
Keller says people should judge his paper's reporting as journalism, not as part of any political campaign.