A controversial New York Times story accusing Sen. John McCain of an untoward relationship with a Washington lobbyist set off a furor among readers and journalists, and seemed to unify conservative commentators around the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
For much of Thursday, a debate raged across the Internet, cable television and talk radio about the Times story, “For McCain, Self-Confidence of Ethics Poses Its Own Risk.”
Some journalism analysts and voters said the newspaper story that explored McCain’s interaction with the lobbyist exposed hypocrisy by McCain, who has carefully cultivated an image as a maverick who disdains cozy Washington relationships.
Others attacked the front-page story for muddying an investigation of lobbying by suggesting that McCain had an affair with the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, without providing persuasive evidence on that point.
Both the Republican Party and McCain’s campaign used the story in e-mail solicitations for contributions.
Calling the Times story “scurrilous” and “a sleazy smear attack,” campaign manager Rick Davis said McCain needed donations to “defend our nominee from the liberal attack machine.”
Conservative commentators, including some who previously chastised McCain for not hewing closely to their principles, leaped to the candidate’s defense.
Radio personality Laura Ingraham, like other critics, noted that the newspaper had been researching the story for several months and accused the Times of delaying publication to do maximum damage.
“You wait until it’s pretty much beyond a doubt that he’s going to be the Republican nominee,” Ingraham said on her morning radio program, “and then you let it drop -- drop some acid in the pool, contaminate the whole pool. That’s what the New York Times thinks.”
The most popular host in talk radio, Rush Limbaugh, described the story as standard fare for the paper he accuses of coddling the left.
“You’re surprised that Page Six-type gossip is on the front page of the New York Times?” said Limbaugh in reference to the gossip column of the tabloid New York Post. Limbaugh, who previously has ripped McCain as a fake conservative, said: “Where have you been? How in the world can anybody be surprised?”
David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network wrote on his blog: “In [the] conservative world, if the New York Times does a ‘hit job’ on you, then you wear that as a conservative badge of honor. . . . This story could actually help John McCain.”
Times Editor Bill Keller defended the story both in a statement and in interviews.
“On the substance, we think the story speaks for itself. On the timing, our policy is, we publish stories when they are ready,” Keller said in a statement.
The editor said, via e-mail, that the furious discussion of the story neglected its broader focus on McCain’s history and how a “man who so prizes his honor can also be, according to those who know him well, careless of his reputation.”
Keller said he could only speculate about the motivation for the McCain camp’s sharp counterattack.
“But it’s textbook crisis control to change the subject by making the story about the messenger,” Keller said. “And . . . I suspect his operatives see Times-bashing as a time-honored way to rally the conservative base.”
More than 2,300 comments on the article poured in to an nytimes.com message board, prompting the paper to announce late Thursday that editors and reporters who worked on the piece would answer questions from readers submitted to askthetimes@ nytimes.com.
Political and journalistic insiders have been anticipating the Times story for weeks, ever since the Internet’s Drudge Report launched a missive just before Christmas saying McCain was trying to “spike” the report.
The Times story dealt with the concerns of McCain’s aides about frequent interactions between McCain, 71, and Iseman, 40, as he was running for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination. Quoting anonymous sources, the paper said aides became “convinced the relationship had become romantic . . . and intervened to protect the candidate from himself.”
Another vein of the story suggested McCain, chairman of the powerful Commerce Committee, had taken actions that benefited Iseman’s lobbying clients.
American Journalism Review Editor Rem Rieder wrote in an online article late Wednesday that, while “not the most airtight piece ever published,” the Times story had correctly highlighted McCain’s record as a self-styled government reformer.
“To have such a high-profile relationship with a lobbyist on issues over which he has jurisdiction, replete with a trip on her client’s corporate jet, is an appalling lapse of judgment, regardless of whether the two were sleeping together,” Rieder wrote, in part.
Mike Hoyt, executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, also defended the story, saying the concerns about a lobbying conflict and aides’ purported efforts to prevent an unseemly relationship were enough to justify publication.
But several other journalism watchers said the Times left too many questions unanswered and, by raising the possibility of a romantic relationship rather than focusing on improprieties directly related to his role as a public official, hurt its own cause.
(The story said only that McCain aides were concerned about a possible romantic relationship with Iseman, not that one existed. Both the senator and lobbyist denied that they had been romantically involved.)
“If McCain had these ethical blind spots, that is absolutely a legitimate story,” said Arlene Morgan, an associate dean at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. “But when you go to press with something like this and you haven’t covered all your bases or been transparent about where you got the information . . . then the criticism takes over and the story loses its significance.”
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said the newspaper should have focused on whether the senator acted for, or against, Iseman’s clients and whether the actions were inconsistent with his guiding philosophies. Focusing on an affair is, she said, far less relevant.
“You owe it to the public to answer those [public policy] questions,” Jamieson said, “or you cannot sustain the implications of your argument.”
Two Times staffers familiar with the story noted that it had been subjected to repeated editing and revisions and was reviewed by lawyers.
One blamed the reworking for a murky reference on an important point: The story said that two former associates -- who were not named -- confronted McCain and that he “acknowledged behaving inappropriately and pledged to keep his distance from Ms. Iseman.”
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said that does not make clear the nature of the “inappropriate” behavior to which McCain allegedly admitted. “The phrasing is just too vague,” Rosenstiel said.
Asked about the reference to unspecified “inappropriate” behavior, Times Editor Keller said by e-mail: “I wish I could enlighten you further, but the wording of the stories was very carefully conservative, and if we felt comfortable being more specific, we’d have done it in the story.”
The Washington Post also reported on the McCain- Iseman relationship in its Thursday editions, but without any reference to an alleged romantic connection. Other papers, including the New York Times-owned Boston Globe, also ran the Post story focusing on the lobbying relationship.