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And among media watchers, that was one big question this morning: Why the Times published the McCain story today.

NPR's David Folkenflik explains how the article got published when it did.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: New York Times executive editor Bill Keller says it started with a tip about a confrontation between Senator McCain and some of his staff during his first run for the presidency in 2000, a confrontation about a lobbyist.

Mr. BILL KELLER (Executive Editor, New York Times): 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.

FOLKENFLIK: But the Times wasn't able to confirm that. Instead, Keller tells NPR, the article that ran this morning provided a slightly different insight into one of the nation's leading candidates for president.

Mr. KELLER: It's not a gotcha story about some kind of quid pro quo. 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.

FOLKENFLIK: The editors and reporters at the Times - and there were four reporters on it - wrestled for months over this potentially explosive scoop. But what did they have?

As far back as December, the reporters involved thought they could show an inappropriate relationship between McCain and telecommunications lobbyist Vicki Iseman. Gabe Sherman wrote about the reporters' frustrations in a piece posted Thursday by The New Republic just this afternoon.

Mr. GABE SHERMAN (Correspondent, The New York Observer): 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 that it's true. And, there's always an editor who pushes back and says, well, what can we print? What can we go with?

FOLKENFLIK: Keller wanted harder proof — and clear attribution. Meanwhile, McCain called Keller to complain that the reporters' questions about his personal life were spurring rumors around town, and to hurry up and wrap their reporting. Matt Drudge splashed a gossipy item about it on his Web site.

But the story did not run until today — and that has prompted questions about the timing. Did the newspaper hold the story while McCain's nomination by the Republican Party was in doubt? Or, was its hand forced by the imminent appearance of Sherman's article on the Times?

Keller says the piece ran only because it was finally ready. But that didn't mollify John McCain, who played media critic for a day.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): And that's why I'm so disappointed, you know, on a story based on, quote, anonymous sources, et cetera.

FOLKENFLIK: Today, McCain camp and the Republican Party has sent out fundraising appeals accusing the Times of a sleazy smear.

Gabe Sherman says Senator McCain is looking to change the subject.

Mr. SHERMAN: The McCain campaign is looking to make this a media story and a referendum on the Times' journalistic standards.

FOLKENFLIK: It was enough, at least for the moment, to rally the right to his defense, including such luminaries as Rush Limbaugh, even though the talk-show host has attacked McCain this year.

Over on the Fox News Channel, viewers saw conservative media critic Brent Bozell talking with host E.D. Hill.

Mr. BRENT BOZELL (Founder and President, Media Research Center): You know, E.D., the New York Times has given the National Enquirer a bad name.

FOLKENFLIK: Some non-ideological critics focused on the failure to prove the affair, or the favoritism.

Keller says that misses the point.

Mr. KELLER: I think the story that emerged is actually bigger, and more important and maybe more subtle. There's not a big market for subtle these days but I still think it's an important story.

FOLKENFLIK: And Keller says people should judge his paper's reporting as journalism, not as part of any political campaign.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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