John McCain and The New York Times

No point rehashing the John McCain/New York Times story here. There have been plenty of excellent commentaries, including one by Jay Rosen and another by Jeff Jarvis.

But I am going to look at this story this week in my ethics class at Kent State. It provides a timely example of at least two issues: the use of anonymous sources and fairness.

It also provides an example of crisis management. McCain obviously knew the story was in the works. He attacked it quickly and aggressively. And in the absence of facts that would point to an improper relationship between the senator and a female lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, McCain’s position appears to be credible. I guess we’ll see.

Here’s my quick take:

As I read the story, it appeared to me that the Times had a decent story that focused on McCain’s character and ethics, although most of it was old news. But that story came packaged in a wrapper that shouted sex, lies and maybe videotape.

The article in the second paragraph says:

A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.

OK. McCain and Iseman deny in the story having a romantic relationship. So we’ll just have to take the word of The Times on this one. I’m not so sure the public is that trusting these days. I’m not. Couldn’t have been that many advisers in McCain’s campaign eight years ago. Any chance there may be some axe grinding this time around? Or any chance that The Times hyped the story with the wrong lead? If so, fair to McCain? Hardly.

Clark Hoyt, the public editor at The Times, has some reservations as well.

But in the absence of a smoking gun, I asked Keller [Executive Editor Bill Keller] why he decided to run what he had.

“If the point of the story was to allege that McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, we’d have owed readers more compelling evidence than the conviction of senior staff members,” he replied. “But that was not the point of the story. The point of the story was that he behaved in such a way that his close aides felt the relationship constituted reckless behavior and feared it would ruin his career.”

I think that ignores the scarlet elephant in the room. A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.

And, amazingly, the article in the long run will most likely help McCain. It certainly has given all the conservative radio and TV pundits an opportunity to jump to his defense.

So beyond the students in my ethics class, if you are interested in considering different perspectives on this story The Plain Dealer had two excellent columns Sunday. One by Ted Diadium. One by Connie Schultz.

Hey, if Steve Rubel can become a celebrity by mostly just linking to other stories why can’t I?

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One response to “John McCain and The New York Times

  1. Rob-

    I’m not naive enough to think the “politics of personal destruction” is going to vanish, but I sense something different in this election. I see people actively engaged, whether they support the maverick McCain, the enigmatic Clinton or the telegenic Obama.

    I did not see that in 1996, 2000 or 2004, when the “lesser of two evils” was the mantra and the mud being thrown was welcome comic relief from the candidates’ empty rhetoric. People I know voted out of civic duty or anti-the other guy, not because they were excited by a candidate (Dole, Gore and Kerry were three stiffs who did not engender a lot of passion except from the party faithful).

    I’m sure McCain’s temper and ethics quandries will be publicly dissected; that Obama’s past will be thoroughly inspected and all dirt found will displayed publicly; and, of course, Clinton’s enemies have been carefully storing their ammo for years.

    But, unless one of them turns out to be an ax murderer, I don’t think it’s going to have much sway on the average voter. They are more interested in changing the direction of the country.

    Tim

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