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Thursday, February 21, 2008

McCain: The NYT Ambient Journalism

posted by on February 21 at 9:38 AM

I hate to go all Postman on you guys, but as much as I love the McCain story, this shit wouldn’t have passed Stranger newsroom standards.

Certainly, the NYT establishes that Sen. McCain’s friendship with telecom lobbyist Vicki Iseman alarmed his staff circa 2000 and that staffers told him to stop hanging out with her so much. And that’s a story. But the NYT should have run that story without the “concerned that the relationship had become romantic” line.

The NYT has no one saying the pair was having an affair. Nor do they have any proof or compelling evidence. They’ve only got anonymous people saying they suspected it. Yet, they then go and ask both McCain and Iseman if they were having an affair. Lame.

The NYT simply doesn’t have the goods on this. And let’s be honest: The energy of this story, the ambient takeaway, is the insinuation that McCain was doing political favors for a woman he was sleeping with.

If they wanted to do that story, they should have gone out and gotten it. Interview rival telecom company lobbyists, interview Iseman’s exes, Iseman’s colleagues; interview McCain’s colleagues; get McCain and Iseman’s lobbyist and financial disclosure reports. These are all places to start.

But here’s all they’ve got:

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, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity.
That February, Mr. McCain and Ms. Iseman attended a small fund-raising dinner with several clients at the Miami-area home of a cruise-line executive and then flew back to Washington along with a campaign aide on the corporate jet of one of her clients, Paxson Communications. By then, according to two former McCain associates, some of the senator’s advisers had grown so concerned that the relationship had become romantic that they took steps to intervene.
But 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?”.

Sorry, but that is not enough to put the microphone in McCain’s face and ask him if he was having an affair.

If McCain was actually having an affair with a telecom lobbyist who represented legislation that McCain supported, it would be a major story—particularly relevant given that McCain—whose whole persona is framed by his apparent righteous integrity—is about to become the GOP Presidential nominee.

But the NYT doesn’t have that.

Look, I love the idea of this story, but if a Stranger newsie had brought this story to me, I would have said: Is anyone saying the pair was actually having an affair? Can they give you any proof? Do you have any proof? If not, you’ve got an interesting story about staff warning McCain to stop hanging out with this lobbyist so much. Tell that story but leave out the anonymous quotes about their suspicions.

I understand that I’m now going to get blasted with examples of the Stranger’s own lacking standards. Okay. Either way, I’m still surprised the NYT ran this story this way.

There is one Stranger story I’m sure will get thrown in my face. But actually, re-reading it side by side with the NYT story highlights the shortcomings of the NYT’s decision to run their story the way they did.

We once ran a story about rumors that then-Republican-State-Senator Luke Esser was gay. But please read Eli’s thoughtful story.

The story doesn’t coyly suggest Esser is gay and then use that as a spring board to insinuate that Esser was a hypocrite (Esser was an outspoken leader in the GOP against gay rights and marriage). Eli’s story cites, by name, a Democratic State Senator who believed Esser was gay and had actually written a letter to the NYT Ethicist column asking about the ethics of outing colleagues. That was our news peg and starting point.

Eli’s article goes on to investigate and pooh-pooh the rumors and makes no effort to use the rumors as a foil to Esser’s political positions. It’s a totally different animal than the NYT’s hint hint McCain story.

Anyway, certainly there are examples of lapses in the Stranger newsroom, but that’s not the issue here. The issue is the NYT McCain story. And Red red flag, Bill Keller, your paper’s story doesn’t even have a picture of McCain and Iseman together. And that’s my takeaway from your story.

RSS icon Comments


The Stranger has standards? Now that's a story.

Posted by left coast | February 21, 2008 9:36 AM

Where's the picture of McCain and Isemen in this post?

Posted by pencil riot | February 21, 2008 9:37 AM

He totally did. Look at him. Aw, yeah, dog.

Posted by Ziggity | February 21, 2008 9:39 AM
... this shit wouldn’t have passed Stranger newsroom standards.

Whoa! this right here is some serious breaking news. The Stranger has standards?

Posted by The Harder They Come | February 21, 2008 9:41 AM

Now if John McCain had ever sent an email where he used its where he should have said it's, that would be Stranger newsroom material.

Posted by elenchos | February 21, 2008 9:47 AM

with you an this, but the key word is 'convinced'

At the Times editors have said, the story 'speaks for itself' (and says volumes)

Posted by ho' know | February 21, 2008 9:48 AM

Yeah, I have to agree, Josh. Much as I love the idea of nailing McCain with either a real live sex scandal, or selling out to a lobbyist, this story is all vapor. Sadly. Rumor and innuendo.

In a perfect world, a real story about McCain with meat would break, oh, about September sometime. Or the classic October surprise. That would be good. This... does little more than sully the reputation of a decent newspaper.

Posted by Reverse Polarity | February 21, 2008 9:50 AM

Did you not read:

"In interviews, the two former associates said they joined in a series of confrontations with Mr. McCain, warning him that he was risking his campaign and career. Both 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."

Posted by umvue | February 21, 2008 9:53 AM

So...let's concentrate on the real story.

If I showed up in Washington, could I get that kind of access to a Senator on a repeated basis? I don't care why she had it - flying him around on private jets, her clients campaign contributions, or actually sleeping with him. McCain can have Saturday night orgies for all I care - the issue is what influence did she have. Why do we, as the voters who actually put someone in office, continually have to settle for elected officials who listen far more to people who didn't elect them?

Posted by bohica | February 21, 2008 10:00 AM

I didn't care who Clinton was sleeping with, and I don't care who McCain was sleeping with.

Posted by exelizabeth | February 21, 2008 10:02 AM

McCain is all about the money and the babes, dawg!

Posted by Will in Seattle | February 21, 2008 10:10 AM

I agree that the NYT erred on the side of playing up the smuttier aspects of the story. However, the Iseman story is just one of several cozy relationships McCain seems to have enjoyed with lobbyists. I was waiting for his "Keating 5" history to resurface, a particularly sensitive scar for a man who prides himself on integrity and who admits that he doesn't know much about the economy. My hope is that the furor about Iseman won't overshadow everything else in the story, much the same way CBS News's botched reporting on George W. Bush's National Guard flight records overshadowed the very serious questions of how he got such a cushy assignment during a time of war.

Posted by Bub | February 21, 2008 10:10 AM

@9, sorry to be so very cynical, but the voters play just one part in the whole election game. It takes money -- lots of money and that's where all of those "special interests" come in. That money isn't going to charity, it's buying access, an open mind, if you will.

I don't know how it will ever change. Not sure how it could - first amendment and all that.

Posted by ahava | February 21, 2008 10:10 AM

The NYT tries to make the story really be about McCain's tone-deafness to the issue of "how things look," suggesting that he is so confident in his own reputation that he doesn't bother to avoid situations that suggest unethical behavior. That approach, of course, leaves open the possibility that he's not actually being unethical, but just doing things that are ripe for misinterpretation by others.

The slant seems spin-ish to me, as though the paper really wanted to cover this possible affair and quid pro quo legislative maneuvering, and thus found a way to make the article ostensibly focus on something else -- McCain's lack of savvy about appearances. But that something else isn't all that newsworthy, in my book, and they don't come up with all that many examples of it -- the big ones are this possible lobbyist affair and McCain's involvement in the S&L mess. Two incidents over the course of decades in office isn't enough to convince me that he's so idiotically unaware that appearances count that he'd be a bad president for that reason. So, where's the beef, exactly? The real beef is the affair itself, I suspect, and the appearances thing is just the NYT's ketchup.

Posted by A in NC | February 21, 2008 10:13 AM

He also fails to mention that Florida flight with said lobbyist when requested to provide a list of trips on corporate jets owned by telecom companies. But was later proved to have flown with her. That is odd, or worse.

Posted by TheTruthHurts | February 21, 2008 10:15 AM

the NYT obviously has much more material that they couldn't include, for one reason or another. apparently they've been researching this story for awhile (as have other publications) and had to run with it before getting scooped.

Posted by bing | February 21, 2008 10:20 AM

No, the Stranger wouldn't have run the story in print. It just would have posted it here on the Slog!

Posted by duh | February 21, 2008 10:23 AM

"Obviously they have other sources they couldn't run."

Because obviously there's no such thing as free press in this country.

This may or may not be true, but it's incredible smoke-and-mirrors stuff. Reminds me of the supermarket rags I pick up when bored in line," A close friend suggested blah and blah." Okay, so if these two "witnesses" gave evidence that cooberated each other, then why not mention what those items were? And maybe McCain's admittance that he "acted inappropriately" was that he was too emotionally close to this woman, or had been too heavily influenced by her-not strictly saying he had an affair.

Ugh, journalism.

Posted by Marty | February 21, 2008 10:25 AM

Well, the story was held for two months because McCain lawyered up, and the story the NYT did publish has the look of being re-written by the NYT legal department (as I'm sure you've also read on TPM).

Also, McCain's non-denial denial is sort of strange, don't you think?

It seems to me the Times was going to get scooped by someone else if they didn't get out even a highly doctored version. So they put this out, hoping the rest of the details would come out later.

Stranger's "standards' or not, Josh, I think you're wrong about this story, and I hope the journalists for once take the kid gloves off regarding St. John.

Posted by Tlazolteotl | February 21, 2008 10:27 AM
20, you HAVE standards? Whoa. Now THAT'S news.

Posted by Ann | February 21, 2008 10:29 AM

i still find it odd that nyt endorsed mccain and then ran this story. that's a whole other facet to this...

Posted by jayme | February 21, 2008 10:31 AM

This story is awesome... it shows that McCain isn't so high and mighty in his sermons... and lays out facts that have been rumored for years... Does anyone think that this sort of thing wasn't done against Democrats in their time of power?

Also, these stories end up having more truth than falses in them... think about the lawmakers such as Larry Craig and that other one from Vancouver... more truth than falses...

McCain has a poor moral compass... and I can't in good conscience vote for someone that has that for our president.

Posted by Jon | February 21, 2008 10:40 AM

Great insighful, and refreshing, post Josh.

Posted by Journalism Review Committee | February 21, 2008 10:44 AM

i think the whole point is that mccain likes to paint himself as this no-nonsense maverick politician who doesn't bend to the whims of special interests or lobbyists just because they throw money [or possibly a little side action] at him. it's also an opportunity for them to bring up some of his past scandals, which had been all but forgotten.

it's kind of a messy story, but i think they're just putting it out there to see what happens next.

Posted by brandon | February 21, 2008 10:47 AM

@21, it's not at all odd that the editorial page and the front page disagree at the NYT or the Washington Post.

Posted by left coast | February 21, 2008 11:04 AM

Thank you for this. Past their obvious "we've got him now!" glee, most other stories seemed insubstantial or missing a point. Now I understand why.

Posted by Gary | February 21, 2008 11:07 AM

Need names Josh? The Washington Post has them. Obviously all the media was all over this story and the NYT rushed it to print.

Now as to The Stranger's standards, well we probably shouldn't get into that.

Posted by ratcityreprobate | February 21, 2008 11:08 AM

I think the real story is that the right wing attack machine has printed far flimsier evidence than this against just about every major Democratic figure over the past 16 years. I am glad the NYT was willing to let themselves get a little dirty. This is no time for hand-wringing. The libs have to be ready to go toe-to-toe with FOX's vile rumor-mongers through November.

Posted by fribster | February 21, 2008 11:11 AM

bullshit. you would have broken that story in an instant. on slog. before you even called mccain to verify anything.

Posted by wf | February 21, 2008 11:21 AM

Personally, I think I would prefer the constitution to Dorf as president. The bigger question is: How big of a whore do you need to be to have to give a guy a pill before, and dress him after? What did she get paid in, Euros?

Posted by busdrivermike | February 21, 2008 11:31 AM

Whenever a Stranger writer or staffer starts going on about unbiased prinicipled standards or takes an above it all cynical tone, the quality of the reporting and analysis goes down.

Posted by cracked | February 21, 2008 11:35 AM

The gender angle in this story interests me. For example, McCain had an inappropriate relationship with a female lobbyist. Fine. We aren't given any hard facts as to exactly what this relationship entailed. Women and men get together all of the time to do business. That the lobbyist was a woman and that a sexual relationship was thus insinuated is insulting. The focus of the story should have been the inappropriate nature of the relationship with a lobbyist, not a female lobbyist. If sex took place, whatever. The corruption or alleged corruption is another story.

Posted by Meela | February 21, 2008 12:48 PM

Feit, it's hard to take your standards seriously when you use 'retarded' in your writing as an insult.

Posted by Lola | February 21, 2008 1:15 PM

@10: If the Times's implied story (McCain and lobbyist having an affair) was correct, the story would be fundamentally different from Bill Clinton's affair, in that there's a strong potential for conflict of interest that affects McCain's constituents.

Posted by S. Ben Melhuish | February 21, 2008 1:52 PM

Mr. Feit:

Thanks for a cogent post, and for concisely placing my vague concerns about the piece into better focus.

What's strange to me is that the diffuse nature of the allegation remained after they sat on this for so many months, THAT they "worked" on it for so many months, with the completely predictable response from the wing-nuts.

The right-wingers would be screaming bias at this article at ANY time between now and November. Because of course, they expect McCain to continue getting the smoothies he continually receives from the compliant press.

Gregor Samsa

P.S. By comment 34, we've seen enough of the "The Stranger HAS STANDARDS?!?" bullshit.

Posted by Gregor Samsa | February 22, 2008 3:24 PM

Gracias Mr. Samsa

Posted by Josh Feit | February 23, 2008 1:19 PM

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