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Friday, February 22, 2008

The Incredible Hubris of the New York Times

For proof of the power of the twenty four hour news cycle and the internet age, we only need to look at the evolution of the New York Times article that suggested something improper, though nothing specific, was happening between John McCain and a lobbyist several years ago. Nearly in real time, the story went from accusations against McCain to accusations against the Times itself. What is stunning about the article is just how vague it is on all fronts. The Times never even outwardly accuses McCain of adultery. They merely suggest that some unnamed associates were concerned about the coziness of the relationship. What their specific concerns were or who these associates are is never divulged. The crux of the story by the Times is that unnamed "associates" accuse McCain of nebulous wrongdoing. Neither the associates nor the specific wrongdoing is ever actually revealed.

It is truly unbelievable that the Times thought that anyone would accept their smear and that it would do anything but impugn themselves. Impugn themselves is exactly what they have done with this story and it is happening in near real time.

Today, you will find few if any commentators, on either side, impugning McCain. You will, however, find plenty of commentators on both sides impugning the Times. Here is what Michael Gerson of the Washington Post had to say.



If McCain is correct, the Times has committed a serious act of journalistic malpractice. If the Times is correct, McCain has shimmied out on a very dangerous limb.

So far, McCain has gotten the better of the argument.

First, McCain categorically denies an inappropriate relationship with the lobbyist in question, who denies the charge as well.

Even if this accusation of infidelity were true, this kind of past relationship is hardly disqualifying for high office anymore, given a series of more prurient precedents. An affair between adults is a far cry from President Clinton's exploitation of an intern, which involved not merely a failure of character but an abuse of power.

Here is the view from the Politico.



Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign claimed vindication Thursday night after a sophisticated 24-hour counterattack turned a potentially lethal story in The New York Times into a conservative call to arms.

The piece about McCain’s friendly relations with a telecommunications lobbyist—long-discussed in political circles and planned for weeks by McCain operatives—was the first test of his ability to confront a public-relations crisis since becoming the GOP’s presumptive nominee.

...

“For conservatives, The New York Times is shorthand for everything they distrust,” said John Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College and former Republican operative. It was a vivid illustration of the power of the longstanding anti-media grievance among conservatives.

In the past, McCain’s cozy relationships with establishment journalists (“My base,” as he sometimes jokes) has been a major reason the Arizona senator is viewed with such jaundiced eyes by many on the right. McCain was able to leverage these feelings to turn a potentially devastating story into something that arguably lifts his political standing.


Even the liberal Seattle Post Intelligencer came out to impugn the credibility of the story.

I chose not to run the New York Times story on John McCain in Thursday's P-I, even though it was available to us on the New York Times News Service. I thought I'd take a shot at explaining why.

To me, the story had serious flaws. It did not convincingly make the case that McCain by her. It used a raft of unnamed sources to assert that members of McCain's campaign staff -- not this campaign but his campaign eight years ago -- were concerned about the amount of time McCain was spending with the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman. They were worried about the appearance of a close bond between the two of them.

Then it went even further back, re-establishing the difficulties McCain had with his close association to savings-and-loan criminal Charles Keating. It didn't get back to the thing that (of course) the rest of the media immediately pounced on -- McCain, Iseman and the nature of their relationship -- until very deep in the story. And when the story did get back there, it didn't do so with anything approaching convincing material.

A very good editor I happen to work for, P-I Editor and Publisher Roger Oglesby, said today that the story read like a candidate profile to him, not an investigative story, and I think that's true. A candidate profile based on a lot of old anecdotes.
Here is Bill O'Reilly's talking points...



The key paragraph in The New York Times article is this: "Both [sources] said Mr. McCain acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance from Ms. Iseman. The two associates, who said they had become disillusioned with the senator, spoke independently of each other and provided details that were corroborated by others."

What details? Acknowledged behaving inappropriately how? Those questions aren't answered by The New York Times. This is incredibly sloppy journalism, is it not? Come on.

Here's a guy running for president, and you're implying things that could ruin him? Based on what? If John McCain did indeed do something wrong, prove it. Have these anonymous people come out and lodge the accusation. Don't smear the man with innuendo.

Finally, consider this. The New York Times endorsed John McCain for the Republican nomination on January 25, less than a month ago. The paper had this article already in the works on that date. So why would The Times endorse McCain if he had acted inappropriately?

Those are three damning indictments from varied sources and of course I haven't even quoted from traditional Conservative media and the blogs. The White House summed up the feeling of most conservatives.



I think a lot of people here in this building, with experience in a couple campaigns, have grown accustomed to the fact that during the course of the campaign, seemingly on maybe a monthly basis leading up to the convention and maybe a weekly basis after that, the New York Times does try to drop a bombshell on the Republican nominee.

“And that is something that the Republican nominee has faced in the past and probably will face in this campaign,” he said. “And sometimes they make incredible leaps to try to drop those bombshells on the Republican nominee.”

As for the allegations about McCain, Stanzel said, “I’m not going to speak to the specifics in that story but it’s been our impression that they do drop those bombshells.”

Within twenty four hours, this story turned from a potential scandal against McCain, to another scandal at the New York Times. The Conservatives will use this episode to point again to the liberal bias at the Times and the MSM in general. The credibility of the Times will take yet another hit just when their readership and their stock price near critical levels. The irony is that the story will likely only help McCain curry favor with the very Conservatives that he has angered.

Whatever the Times thought they would accomplish, it is likely to accomplish the exact opposite. This story puts them on par with your standard issue tabloid journal. McCain will likely draw sympathy from most folks, and the Times will take yet another hit to their credibility at a time when they simply can't afford another one.

For them to think that this sort of sloppy, sensationalist, and ultimately anonymously sourced journalism would do anything but backfire is the height of hubris. After the Jayson Blair fiasco, the Betray Us debacle, among many incidents of burying or not even reporting important stories, did the Times really think they could peddle a story that was nothing more than innuendo, nebulous charges, and all sourced by anonymous "associates", and have that story be seen as anything but totally illegitimate immediately? Once again, we have an instance of arrogance, a deadly sin, rearing its ugly head to be nothing more than a fatal character flaw.

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