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Times Article on McCain Fuels Controversy over Coverage

February 25, 2008 at 6:40 PM EST
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A New York Times article published last week suggesting that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., had an improper relationship with a Washington lobbyist sparked debate over the media's role in covering presidential politics and prompted a response by the Times' ombudsman. Experts weigh the relationship between media and politics.
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JIM LEHRER: And that brings us to the continuing debate over the New York Times and its John McCain story. Jeffrey Brown has our Media Unit report.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was put forward as part of a series of stories on presidential candidates, but the New York Times article that appeared Thursday on Senator McCain’s close ties to a female lobbyist has become a story itself.

The article reported that during his 2000 bid for the presidency McCain’s staff confronted him about his ties to Vicki Iseman, then a lobbyist for telecommunications companies with business before the Senate committee headed by McCain.

The report said several unnamed former top advisers were, quote, “convinced the relationship had become romantic” and that McCain had, quote, “acknowledged behaving inappropriately.”

Both McCain and Iseman denied they’d had a romantic relationship. And at a hastily arranged press conference Thursday morning, McCain disputed much of the Times’ reporting.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: I’m very disappointed in the New York Times’ piece. It’s not true.

JOURNALIST: Senator, did you ever have any meeting with any of your staffers in which they would have intervened to ask you not to see Vicki Iseman or to be concerned about appearances of being too close to a lobbyist?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: No.

JOURNALIST: No meeting ever occurred?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: No.

JOURNALIST: No staffer was ever concerned about a possible romantic relationship?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: If they were, they didn’t communicate that to me.

JOURNALIST: Did you ever have such relationship?

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: No.

Article controversial in newsroom

JEFFREY BROWN: Other media outlets reported that the story, which had been in the works since November, had been debated intensely amongst staffers in the Times' newsroom.

Gabriel Sherman reports for the New Republic.

GABRIEL SHERMAN, reporter, The New Republic: The reporters working on this piece felt passionately that they had nailed it to their satisfaction. Bill Keller, the executive editor, felt that they couldn't just run with a piece that had a string of anecdotal evidence.

JEFFREY BROWN: After the story ran Thursday, editor Bill Keller released a statement, saying in part, "We publish stories when they are ready. 'Ready' means the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction, the subjects have all been given a full and fair chance to respond, and the reporting has been written up with all the proper context and caveats."

On NPR, Keller added that the suggestion of a romantic liaison was not the main point of the story.

BILL KELLER, executive editor, New York Times: I think the story that emerged is actually bigger and more important and maybe more subtle. It's not a "gotcha" story about some kind of quid pro quo.

We don't know whether 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the darts have come from many quarters, including conservative talk radio.

RUSH LIMBAUGH, radio talk show host: This paper endorsed McCain, sat on this story, and now puts it out just prior to McCain wrapping up the nomination.

JEFFREY BROWN: Criticism also came from New York Times ombudsman Clark Hoyt. "If you cannot provide readers with some independent evidence," Hoyt wrote in his Sunday column, "I think it is wrong to report the suppositions or concerns of anonymous aides about whether the boss is getting into the wrong bed."

And we look at all this now with Charlotte Grimes, who holds the Knight Chair in Political Reporting at Syracuse University. She covered national and local politics as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for 20 years.

And Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, he's also an author and former media reporter with the New York Times.

Well, Charlotte Grimes, I think you're siding with the critics here. What's the main problem you have with this story?

CHARLOTTE GRIMES, Syracuse University: Well, we have a long time trying to find out what this story is about. We teach our journalism students, and we like to practice journalism, that the opening, what we call the lead, is supposed to tell us what this story is about.

In this case, that lead is focused on what appears to be an inappropriate relationship without much evidence. I understand that the New York Times thought it was telling a bigger story. It should have made that clearer, higher, faster, and focused on that bigger story.

Worthy story, wrong angle?

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Alex Jones, a first reaction to the story from you, and then we'll walk through some of the details.

ALEX JONES, Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy: Well, I think that the story -- you know, what the story was about was telegraphed in the headline.

And the headline was not that John McCain had had an affair or might have had an affair, but that he had a pattern of inappropriate relationships that he himself didn't really seem sufficiently, anyway, to understand in terms of the possibility that he was being manipulated.

This was a pattern that went all the way back to early in his career, when he had the terrible experience with the Keating situation out in Arizona.

And I think that there are really four questions here that colleagues of mine and I have come to differ on, people I respect, like Charlotte and like Clark Hoyt. But I do see it differently for four fundamental reasons.

First, I don't consider this to be old news. I think that for most of us we're just getting to know John McCain in an intimate way, getting to know him in a way that is going to make it important to know as much about him as possible before we decide who we're for in this upcoming election. And that goes for all of the candidates, whoever the other candidates may be.

Second, this is about...

JEFFREY BROWN: Alex, Alex, can I stop you, and we'll just go point by point. And let me just ask Charlotte...

ALEX JONES: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask Charlotte, because Alex is walking us through this. Point one is whether it's old news.

CHARLOTTE GRIMES: Well, some of it is old news. A goodly amount of it is old news. And I'm not against repeating old news to remind us of what someone has done and is like. That's showing patterns, and we typically do that.

When I first read this story, I was quite disappointed in the opening and the focus on the alleged improper relationship with a woman and said, "Well, at least they performed a valuable service of reminding us about the Keating episode."

And had the story focused really much more on the relationship with lobbyists and the potential for hypocrisy or tone-deafness in that kind of appropriate or inappropriate relationship, I don't think the Times would have gotten itself into as much trouble.

The Washington Post has taken the other approach. Its story has focused much more on the influence and lobbyists, and gender and sex are nowhere near as prominent.

Use of anonymous sources an issue

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Alex, continue with why you think this was a valid story.

ALEX JONES: Well, I think it was a valid story, as I say, because it was not old news to me, certainly. And, you know, when I read that story, it was news, and I suspect it was to most of the people who read it.

Secondly, I think that it was about his professional behavior as a powerful member of Congress, the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. This is something that was -- I mean, I know that -- apparently Charlotte, for instance, doesn't feel that there was sufficient meat in those bones about that subject in the story.

But there was plenty of it, as far as I was concerned. And that seems to me to be an absolutely appropriate thing for the New York Times and the Washington Post to get at.

And the question of the sexual dimension of it is one that, of course, is entwined here. As far as I'm concerned, the question of the sexual dimension of it is certainly not the most important dimension of it, but it's a critical dimension of it, because it got to the question of why his staff was so concerned, whether it was sexual or not in reality.

They were afraid that the reaction that John McCain had to this woman and the way he was behaving was something that was really so clearly jeopardizing himself that -- it was very much on the record in that article -- that they did an intervention.

I think that it's unfortunate that it was anonymous sources that were the sources of this information about how the high members of the staff were concerned about the sexual dimension potentially.

But it seems to me that in these kinds of situations you have to make the choice between publishing what you know and publishing less than you know, that you have every reason to believe at least reflects what senior members of John McCain's staff believed.

And in this situation, it seems to me the New York Times did the right thing, on balance, did the right thing in telling us about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask Charlotte Grimes about that last point, the anonymous sources, because that's one that has been pointed to a lot. And it's something we do talk a lot about in all kinds of controversial articles that appear. Did it brother you particularly in this instance?

CHARLOTTE GRIMES: Yes, it did, particularly in this instance, and especially when you get very far down in the story and you find out that these are, quote, "disillusioned" senior staff members. And that's bothersome, because we don't know what their ax to grind is.

I also have to go back and say something, with all due respect to Alex, about this, that it is his professional behavior that could be and would be of concern to us. I think, though, that when you open a story with sex, that's going to be what everyone focuses on.

And the allegation then becomes -- or at least the concern becomes -- not whether he was improperly influenced or improperly associating with lobbyists, Mr. Integrity here, but whether or not he was having an affair. And that is what the focus becomes, whether you mean it that way or not.

And I think there was a certain tone deafness there with and for the reporters and with the editors in it, a tone-deafness on how it would be perceived and what was coming across from that.

And that, I think, is really unfortunate, because I think it is extremely important that journalists, that we in the press try to tell the public as much as we possibly can about these very important figures.

But we have to have a certain sensitivity to the tone of it and what's going to come across and what's going to be heard and seen and understood. And in this case, I think it was very tone-deaf.

Public may not want to know

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you both, starting with you, Alex Jones, there's a long history here of reporting on the personal lives -- there's a lot of a long debate over this -- personal lives of candidates and politicians.

Where are we now? Where do you think things stand, in terms of public attitudes and media attitudes?

ALEX JONES: Well, I think that, you know, if you have the sexual dimension in anything, I think that there is -- this has demonstrated, if nothing else, that Americans are, you know, nuts on the subject of sex. That's not something that we should find new, I guess.

But it does seem a shame to me that you can't address any dimension of sexuality without making that the only thing that something is about. I don't think that that's the way it ought to be.

And I think it gets to a larger question about how you report in a presidential election. I mean, we're not talking about just reporting generally.

We're talking about a man who is potentially going to be president of the United States and certainly is going to be one of two people running and the other person is going to be subjected to much the same kind of scrutiny.

So what kind of scrutiny do we want that to be? From my perspective, in a presidential election, the weight ought to be given to publishing. And I think that that is something that in this case means that maybe you would construct the story somewhat differently and maybe you wouldn't have it in the lead.

But I do believe that the suspicions that his staff had, the senior people who worked for him closely, and who one person on the record on his staff talked about the intervention that he made directly with this woman in the train station, I mean, I think those things belong in a story like this for a candidate for the presidency.

I believe that we want to know as much as we possibly can. I wish it had been on the record. It would have been stronger by far if it had been. But on balance, do I want to know what the people at the New York Times knew or do I want them to keep it a secret from me? I'd rather know.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Charlotte Grimes, respond to that. And where do you see us being nowadays in terms of attitudes in the public and the media towards personal lives of candidates?

CHARLOTTE GRIMES: Well, I think we learned a very valuable lesson from the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton episode, in which the public sometimes is changing its mind. It no longer wants to know about some of these things.

You know, usually it's one of us who's ahead of the curve. And in this particular case, I think the public has moved on, unless there is a clear, demonstrable link between the sexual relationship or the sexual allegations and the professional, personal -- or not personal, but the professional and political public performance.

And I think that it is always going to be, when you throw in sexual innuendo, the gasoline on the fire. I'm all for a fire, and I'm all for illuminating as much as we possibly can about a public official or a potential president, any public official's abilities and character and record.

But you really need to think about, what is the story? How do you craft it to get that point across?

And you lose something if you structure your story so explosively that it blows up your point, that you don't get people to really think about John McCain and his relationship with lobbyists. That's a missed opportunity.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the debate continues. Thanks for having it for us, Charlotte Grimes and Alex Jones. Thanks very much.