Opinion: The N.Y. Times McCain scoop that really wasn’t a scoop

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Here’s a footnote -- or perhaps something more than that -- to our Friday morning item about the Boston Globe refusing to publish the controversial New York Times investigative article on Sen. John McCain and his connections with Washington lobbyists.

Now, a semi-covert contact has injected an element of mystery into this story about a story and how big-time journalism is practiced in the United States today.

Not publishing such a big story from your corporate parent was a very unusual move by a newspaper that’s wholly owned by that very same New York Times. Especially when the Globe’s editors then turned around and published instead a competing version of a similar McCain story by two Washington Post reporters.


The Post has been a competitive thorn in the Times’ side and psyche....

since it so thoroughly dominated the Times and the national capital’s coverage of the Watergate scandal that ended the Nixon administration nearly 35 years ago.

Our colleague James Rainey asked the Globe’s editor, Martin Baron, about substituting the competition’s story in place of the parent Times’ version. And Baron replied, ‘No comment.’

The Times article created a political sensation Thursday. But Times editors profess shock over the immediate widespread criticism of the story, including from within the journalism profession, for its undocumented sexual innuendo and anonymous sourcing regarding McCain’s ties to and relations with lobbyists. Since his involvement in a banking scandal about 20 years ago, the Arizona Republican has seemingly hypocritically sought to portray himself as a reformer against special interests.

The Times received thousands of e-mails and letters, most of them critical of its long-awaited story, first revealed by Matt Drudge on Dec. 20. Executive Editor Bill Keller has granted interviews to explain the story. He also joined an online chat with another editor and some of the four bylined reporters to explain and defend their lengthy account of McCain’s close ties to lobbyists.

But the Times own ombudsman criticized the newspaper Sunday for failing to document its implication of a sexual affair.

The article focuses on one lobbyist in particular, a woman who represented several companies, including Paxson Communications, with interests before McCain’s Senate committee.


McCain, who denied any wrongdoing and denounced the article as a smear job, says he’s moving on from the controversy, a politically expedient decision since the presumptive GOP presidential nominee would like all talk of scandal to go away now that the newspaper’s allegations have prompted numerous once-hesitant conservatives to rally to the senator’s side against the liberal Times.

But an interesting thing happened to us Friday. The Ticket was contacted by a senior editor of the Globe, whom we won’t identify to protect his job, just in case. Our item had noted that although the Globe did not print the Times story, its website did provide a link to the Times story on the New York paper’s own website.

The Boston Globe editor provided another link to his newspaper’s website. It leads to the transcript of a revealing online chat held Friday by Walter V. Robinson, a Globe investigative reporter, Pulitzer Prize winner, editor and now a journalism professor at Northeastern University.

Robinson identifies himself as the author of ‘several stories about Sen. John McCain’s contributions from so-called special interests.’ He answers eager Web reader questions about how he came to write the stories. He was scheduled to interview the senator one day during a private jet flight from New Hampshire to Washington after McCain had given a speech assailing special interests in the capital. As he boarded, Robinson noticed the jet said ‘Paxson’ on the side.

Later, Robinson looked up Paxson, and discovered it owned numerous television stations and had considerable business before McCain’s committee handling telecommunications. Robinson began looking into other such firms and then examining records of political donations to McCain and the senator’s letters to government agencies on their behalf.

What he found led to a compelling three-part series of articles exposing McCain’s close financial and political ties to the very interests that he was regularly denouncing, including Paxson. Robinson found McCain traveling on corporate jets owned by special interests to give speeches against special interests within days of receiving political contributions from the special interests’ executives. McCain and the executives denied any quid pro quo, and note his actions were legal at the time.


In his Friday online chat, Robinson notes in passing that the articles are available on the Globe’s website. Indeed, they are. In fact, someone at the Globe has moved them out from behind a Web wall that requires paying a fee.

The reason they were behind the wall is that they were reported and published during McCain’s previous run for the presidency. The archived articles were printed on Jan. 5, on Jan. 7 and on Jan. 9 in the year 2000.

Which, we can now understand, is a real reason behind the Globe not publishing the New York Times’ ‘scoop.’ Because it wasn’t news. The Boston paper, a Times subsidiary, had already exposed the same issues and people and denials regarding McCain in articles written by its own reporter fully eight years ago.

‘What’s it like,’ one of the online chatters asks the now retired reporter, ‘to be first on a story and then see some other outfit redo it and get huge national play?’

To which Robinson simply replies, ‘Imitation is the highest...etc.’

-- Andrew Malcolm