Sunday, February 24, 2008

All the News That's Fit to Hint

You can hear the crackle of eggshells as the Public Editor of the New York Times walks through the wreckage of the paper's story about John McCain last Thursday.

In today's column, Clark Hoyt quotes the morning-after justifying by Executive Editor Bill Keller of a report on a "fighter against corruption" who has been “careless about appearances, careless about his reputation, and that’s a pretty important thing to know about somebody who wants to be president of the United States.”

Perhaps so, but Keller's characterization can be applied just as well to a newspaper that has been and still wants to be the journalistic conscience of the United States.

In defending his reporters, Keller downgraded McCain's "ties" to a younger woman lobbyist to an "association," but they offered proof of little more than an acquaintance that led staff members to worry that it might look like more. About that, the newspaper of record's own conscience concludes that "if you cannot provide readers with some independent evidence, I think it is wrong to report the suppositions or concerns of anonymous aides about whether the boss is getting into the wrong bed."

Amid all the leering, what has been lost is the point about McCain's iffy relationships with lobbyists over the years.

"The pity of it," Hoyt writes today "is that, without the sex, The Times was on to a good story. McCain, who was reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee in 1991 for exercising 'poor judgment' by intervening with federal regulators on behalf of a corrupt savings and loan executive, recast himself as a crusader against special interests and the corrupting influence of money in politics. Yet he has continued to maintain complex relationships with lobbyists like Iseman, at whose request he wrote to the Federal Communications Commission to urge a speed-up on a decision affecting one of her clients."

McCain's defense that he was only trying to expedite rather than influence that decision won't wash in a wink-and-a-nod town where any kind of intervention with a regulatory commission by a powerful Senator sends a clear message.

The Times' main error may have been not to publish its story about that, minus the gossip, as opinion rather than news in "a series of articles about the life and careers of contenders for the 2008 Republican and Democratic presidential nominations."

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