Friday, February 22, 2008

The McCain scrutiny

In a story credited to four reporters, assisted by two researchers and no doubt vetted by numerous copy editors and others higher in its chain of command, The New York Times on Thursday called into question, at least obliquely, the ethics and judgment of John McCain, a presidential candidate who has made ethics and judgment the centerpieces of his campaign.

And ironically (or maybe not too ironically, given the public's near-zero tolerance of the press these days), what’s drawn attention from public and press alike has been not the revelations of the story, but the story itself.

The article, written in an expansive feature style, explores the ties between McCain and Vicki Iseman, a lobbyist who had inexplicably “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 ...”

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The pundits on the Potomac weighed in almost immediately, calling it a hit job and lamenting what some called a “thinly-sourced” story based strongly on persons speaking “on the condition of anonymity,” the anonymous sources that are, often by necessity, the bane of American journalism. With the phrase "protect the candidate from himself" — which conjures up an image of a man out of control, slave to his own appetites — some even flat-out accused The Times of saying that McCain had a romantic relationship with the lobbyist, something the story only peripherally suggests.

Far from being an unprincipled attack on the candidate, though, most of the Times story is a thorough, nuanced recap of McCain’s earlier tiptoes up to the line of political propriety, and by extension an examination of his fidelity to the principles that have animated both his campaign and his career. The story, for example, takes special note of McCain's friendship with Charles Keating, he of the savings-and-loan scandal that cost taxpayers more than $3 billion.

“Even as [McCain] has vowed to hold himself to the highest ethical standards, his confidence in his own integrity has sometimes seemed to blind him to potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest,” The Times reported.

McCain addressed the issue forthrightly; in a statement released later on Thursday, McCain condemned the Times story as a "hit-and-run smear campaign" and denied its underlying assertions of impropriety.

The Times, assuming the customary defensive crouch, said it stands by its reporting. "On the substance, we think the story speaks for itself," Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said in an initial reply to reader reactions. This sage, impersonal res ipsa loquitor response would perhaps have more traction if it came from another august newsgathering body. As a survey of the relatively recent past reveals, the Times' record for unassailable accuracy has not always been the best.

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One perfectly justifiable reason for the fresh McCain scrutiny is a quote taken from one of his books, an expression of a personal philosophy — straight talk, if you will — that takes on fresh urgency in light of the Times report. “[Q]uestions of honor," McCain wrote, "are raised as much by appearances as by reality in politics, and because they incite public distrust they need to be addressed no less directly than we would address evidence of expressly illegal corruption.”

A romantic relationship isn’t proven in the Times story; contrary to the wild cries of the chattering class, a romantic relationship isn’t even alleged in the Times story. What's got readers' knickers in a twist is that sexual angle breathing heavy in the second graph. In some respects, it shows a disregard of Journalism 101: The facts at or near the top of a story are central to the story. That's why they're up there.

If the winking tabloid words "romantic" and "relationship" had to be included at all, they should have been positioned in a place directly reflecting their importance to the story's overall assertions. The way the story was published on Thursday, The Times promised something it couldn't possibly deliver.

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That said, though, The Times offers ample historical grounds for new attention on McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee: His keester in the seats of corporate jets of business executives seeking his support. His hiring a lobbyist to run his Senate office. His role in creating the Reform Institute, a nonprofit group promoting tighter campaign finance rules, followed by his resignation from the group after news reports found the group was getting the very unlimited corporate contributions he opposed.

Even after the potentially damaging impact of the Times story, it seems McCain still doesn’t get it, still doesn’t fully understand how cozy relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists lead to the appearance of questionable honor. On Friday, McCain defended his relationships with lobbyists, some of whom are working on his presidential campaign in senior-level capacities.

''These people have honorable records, and they're honorable people, and I'm proud to have them as part of my team,'' McCain told reporters following a town hall meeting in Indianapolis. The Associated Press reported the meeting with the press on Friday.

The flap over the McCain-Iseman professional relationship — if relationship there ever was — is likely to blow over shortly, pending any followup stories from the Times on the matter. The Democratic candidates, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, almost certainly won’t touch it, taking the high ground on the whole thing. All in all, a tempest in a teapot, but just barely.

But more than anything, the Times story is a warning to McCain — and the other presidential hopefuls — that the press understands how, for a restive and relentlessly informed electorate in the Internet age, past performance can be interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as a possible predictor of future results.
Image credit: McCain: © 2008 Dan Raustadt, reproduced under GNU Free Documentation License v1.2 or later.

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