'Times' Article on McCain Stirs Debate

Reaction is divided to a New York Times article that explored alleged ethics violations by Sen. John McCain, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Senator John McCain has spent the past couple of days defending his reputation as an enemy of special interests, someone who is not influenced by lobbyists. The apparent Republican candidate for president has continued to castigate the New York Times for printing a story on Thursday that questioned his judgment on matters of ethics and alluded to a possible relationship with a lobbyist several years ago.

NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us from our studios in New York.

David, thanks very much for being with us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Anytime.

SIMON: Now, the Times has been criticized by Senator McCain and a lot of people on talk shows. What about other people in the news industry? How have they handled the story, or not?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, any time you have the notion of a presidential candidate, a possible romantic liaison, questions about favors, you know, it stirs up a lot of interest. You saw the cable news break into all their shows on - I guess it was Wednesday night a little after 8:00.

Delicate handling by a lot of the print media. You saw the Seattle Post Intelligencer told its readers that it felt that the Times' reporting - reliant on anonymous sources, not having proved a romantic liaison, not having proved favors done - it said it did not meet its standards. So, although it's a subscriber of the New York Times' news service, it did not republish the piece.

The Boston Globe, which is owned by the New York Times Company, the parent company of the Times itself, published the version done by the Washington Post, a catch-up story done by a rival newspaper. Rick Stengel, the top editor at Time magazine, told viewers of MSNBC he did not think it was worthy of publishing.

So, although there's been other people rallying around and although it sort of helped define the news cycle, there's been a very kind of queasy reaction in the journalist realm.

SIMON: Senator McCain held a press conference in Toledo, if I'm not mistaken, and denied some - denied really everything specific in the New York Times story, which, as you know, is all based on unnamed sources. However, some of those unnamed sources told the Times that they tried to warn Senator McCain about the appearance of his relationship with the lobbyist.

Senator McCain said explicitly he received no such warning from no staff member. Now, does this put him a position that if so much as one staff member or former staff member attests to such a meeting and can prove it, he's got a serious problem?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, he said that there had been no intervention, no discussion with him, no confrontation with his aides over the question of his relationship with the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman. That's going to be a key denial because the Times says that that occurred several times.

SIMON: But they couldn't get anyone to put a name to it.

FOLKENFLIK: No, they couldn't. The most they got sourced directly on the record was from a longtime McCain adviser and a former aide, John Weaver. And Weaver said that he had indeed met with Ms. Iseman at Union Station in D.C. to basically tell her to stay away from the guy, that there was a perception that they were too cozy and that she had said things that had gotten back to the senator and his aides indicating that she had perhaps untoward pull with him.

He did not confirm on the record that he expressed any concern about a romantic liaison or even the perception of one. But it was clear that there was enough of a concern that it caused him to intervene with her to create distance between the two.

SIMON: Senator McCain's got a pretty good relationship with the press personally, doesn't he?

FOLKENFLIK: Hard to beat. I mean, the guy ran a campaign in 2000 - '99 and 2000, his bus the Straight Talk Express. And he invited reporters on and they talk about politics, they talk about the polls, they talk about strategy, they talk about policy and he wears them out.

I remember as a congressional reporter back in '99, 2000, when some of the issues involving the same corporate figure, Mr. Paxon, over at this broadcasting company that McCain has perhaps to have done favors for. He basically disclosed all of the documents relating to that issue and all of the documents relating to any issue that he had sent to federal regulators.

I mean, it took me hours to go through that with a bunch of other reporters but it also earned him kind of a grudging respect saying, hey, look, this guy is doing the exact opposite of hiding.

SIMON: Thanks very much. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet.

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'Times' Draws Criticism for Timing of McCain Story

More from Bill Keller

Hear more from "New York Times" Executive Editor Bill Keller:

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.

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