The New York Times‘s rather weak story linking John McCain to a female lobbyist seems to say a lot more about the internal politics of The New York Times than it does about John McCain. The story, which contains a few paragraphs of innuendo and a lot of old news, seems to be the least interesting part of the story. The more interesting part is the internal deliberations that went on before it was published:
Beyond its revelations, however, what’s most remarkable about the article is that it appeared in the paper at all: The new information it reveals focuses on the private matters of the candidate, and relies entirely on the anecdotal evidence of McCain’s former staffers to justify the piece–both personal and anecdotal elements unusual in the Gray Lady. The story is filled with awkward journalistic moves–the piece contains a collection of decade-old stories about McCain and Iseman appearing at functions together and concerns voiced by McCain’s aides that the Senator shouldn’t be seen in public with Iseman–and departs from the Times’ usual authoritative voice. At one point, the piece suggestively states: “In 1999 she began showing up so frequently in his offices and at campaign events that staff members took notice. One recalled asking, ‘Why is she always around?'” In the absence of concrete, printable proof that McCain and Iseman were an item, the piece delicately steps around purported romance and instead reports on the debate within the McCain campaign about the alleged affair.
What happened? The publication of the article capped three months of intense internal deliberations at the Times over whether to publish the negative piece and its most explosive charge about the affair. It pitted the reporters investigating the story, who believed they had nailed it, against executive editor Bill Keller, who believed they hadn’t. It likely cost the paper one investigative reporter, who decided to leave in frustration. And the Times ended up publishing a piece in which the institutional tensions about just what the story should be are palpable.
Here’s what’s particularly telling about this piece. The New York Times knew of these allegations since at least late November of last year. Yet in late January, they decided to endorse McCain for the GOP nomination, and didn’t give so much as a breath that would imply that the contents of this story had any impact on that choice. If the Times had any problems with the Senator’s ethics, one would think that they’d at least hint at them in their endorsement. Yet there is not even the slightest insinuation of any ethical concern in the Times‘ op-ed.
The timing here is deeply suspect. Why did the Times choose to publish a story that was clearly not ready for publication?
The question to be asked here is cui bono—who benefits from this story coming out now?
The Times may have been pressured to get the story out by The New Republic piece. That seems the most logical explanation, even if it doesn’t involve a great deal of common sense on the part of the Times‘ editorial board. They were facing pressure to run the story and they didn’t want to get scooped, so they went ahead when they shouldn’t have.
Of course, they’re not the only ones who could benefit. Could the Huckabee camp have pushed the story to give Huckabee some bounce in Texas? Perhaps, but that seems to be an unlikely scenario. Unless Huckabee thinks that he can force a brokered convention, he’s got no chance, and if the connection were to come out, he’d be toast.
Could it be Hillary Clinton? If she can get McCain down in the polls, her electability argument gets stronger. Even though the Clintons are capable of all sorts of Machiavellian maneuvers, I’m not so sure this is one of them. For one, it’s far too subtle, and far too indirect. It’s not implausible, but still unlikely.
Of course, when one examines anything that The New York Times does, it should be viewed in light of how helpful that would be to the Democratic Party. The Times is their Pravda, and their primary source of received wisdom. Yet even then the timing still seems suspect. Why break this story now? Yes, McCain has the nomination virtually in hand, but if you want to make McCain look good in the eyes of conservatives an attack by the Times will help rally the troops. The effect of this would have much more impact in the general election, not months away.
My guess is that the Times knew they had no story, but didn’t want to take the risk of someone else scooping them. Ultimately, McCain has plenty of time to deny what is clearly a weak story, helping to rally Times-hating conservatives to his side. Meanwhile, the Times gets caught in yet another case of poor journalistic ethics and political hackery. If this is a scandal, it seems to be a scandal that backfired on those who launched it.