The Senator and the Lobbyist  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   February/March 2008

The Senator and the Lobbyist   

Online Exclusive Sorting out the New York Times' McCain blockbuster

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


The New York Times story on John McCain and the lobbyist has brought out the conspiracy theorists in full force. While the Times is catching flak from no shortage of directions, one of the lines of attack has focused on the timing of the story.

Why didn't the Times publish the story in December, when the inevitable Matt Drudge first alluded to it? Must be, say some of the critics on the right, that the Times was holding it to allow McCain to sew up the Republican nomination, and then published it to soften up the GOP standard-bearer and make him easier prey for a liberal Democrat. (Of course, to inflict maximum damage, the Times should have run the piece as an October surprise.)

The McCain camp speculates that the Times rushed the story into print because The New Republic was preparing a piece on the brutal internal skirmishing over the McCain blockbuster.

What all of this disregards is the way newspapers work. A "story" is not a completed, off-the-assembly-line product, an immutable narrative etched in granite. There's a long distance between initial tip and above-the-fold scoop on a story of this nature and magnitude, particularly one which a high-powered Washington criminal lawyer, not to mention a presidential candidate, is mau-mauing editors to kill. The amount of scrutiny and debate is often staggering.

In more than 26 years at six newspapers and one wire service as a reporter and editor, I can't tell you how many times I've known reporters, excellent reporters, who were convinced that a piece was ready to roll, totally nailed down, only to be told that they needed to do more reporting. Or that the article needed to be rewritten or reorganized or broadened.

It's a tense, intense, conflict-laden process, as that New Republic piece, published on the Web today, makes clear it was in this instance.

Most of the time, all of the massaging makes for a better world. But sometimes the end product is watered down, and sometimes it says more than it establishes. As the great Peter Binzen, my boss at the late Philadelphia Bulletin, often told me when I was fulminating about this or that screw-up, "Newspapering is a very inexact science."

When I was at the Washington Post, we had a story about some of the damage caused by a Soviet spy named Ronald Pelton. Week after week, we thought it was ready to go, only to have someone from the government come up to see Ben Bradlee with national security concerns. Ultimately Bradlee thought the story had reached the point that it could be published without endangering the future of the republic, and it was.

So what about this one? Admittedly, it's not the most airtight piece ever published. There's no smoking gun. There are no documents. There are enough anonymous sources to make Bob Woodward happy. And both the senator and the lobbyist deny that they had an affair.

But the Times doesn't assert that McCain and telecom lobbyist Vicki Iseman had an affair. What it does say is that his top associates were very concerned about his close relationship with someone lobbying about issues before his committee, feared it may have become romantic and actually staged an intervention to break it up. In a rare on-the-record moment, it quotes John Weaver, long a close McCain associate, describing a meeting in which Weaver said he asked Iseman to stay away from the senator.

So who cares? Here's the point: McCain, who nearly blew up his career with his involvement in the Keating Five scandal long ago, has for years portrayed himself as a reformer, an implacable foe of lobbyists, an unfailing crusader against the dreaded earmarks. 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 or spending all of their time playing chess or discussing the works of Hegel and Nietzsche. No wonder his staff was so upset.

(Interestingly, the Washington Post moved quickly to follow the Times' lead with a similar piece it had been in the works for some time without citing the possibility of a sexual relationship.)

And, most important, the Iseman episode is not portrayed in a vacuum. While the Times piece led and concluded with the, er, sexiest part of the saga, it was just a part of a pattern of ethical blind spots shown over the years by McCain. To me, that's the power of the piece.

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