A Swing and a Miss  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   April/May 2008

A Swing and a Miss   

The New York Times' controversial John McCain story

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


What's hardest to stop? An aircraft carrier doing 30 knots? Dick Vitale's superlatives? Ralph Nader's ego?

What if I added this: A big-time newspaper project that has consumed months of your top investigative talent, tens of thousands of dollars, a grove's worth of Xeroxing and countless hours of planning, dissecting and editorial second-guessing?

Anyone who has ever spent time in a newsroom would say that's an easy call.

On February 21 the New York Times published a story in the upper left hand of its front page. The headline read: "For McCain, Self-Confidence/On Ethics Poses Its Own Risk." For many readers, the headline itself its meaning unclear even after three or four readings was a sure sign that there was fog ahead. And so there was.

As we learned, the story was a retrospective of the Ethical Education of John McCain. It detailed how he rebuilt his career from early notoriety as one of the Keating Five to become an independent-minded champion of campaign finance reform, a self-styled "scourge of special interests."

Yet the Times story strongly and provocatively implied that despite his conversion, the senator still had his pet special interests and that a particularly special special interest was a clingy lobbyist three decades his junior, Vicki Iseman.

McCain, of course, will be the Republican presidential nominee, and it appears he will have the luxury of another few months before the Democrats sort out his opponent. Nevertheless, once the general campaign is in full swing, we will hear much more about the senator's record regarding Washington special interests.

But the Times took a pasting for its initial foray, and appropriately so. I found it to be an almost shocking trifecta: ham-handed, disingenuous and unpersuasive.

The story carried the bylines of four top reporters (with two additional researchers credited) and ran to more than 3,000 words. Beyond that obvious commitment of time and resources, one could almost feel the convergence of pressures of reporting such a sensitive piece in the middle of a campaign, of the likelihood that competitors were on their heels. You can appreciate why the newsroom imperative was to publish, well, something.

But my heart sank as I read it, and I couldn't help wondering if this wasn't one of those classic times when the frustrated editor, after a long pause, finally grunts: "Well, write it as strong as you can." When maybe what he should have said was, "Sorry, you don't have it yet." That last simple sentence is the hardest an editor can utter. But the willingness to utter it is the single most important reason he or she gets the biggest paycheck.

What, really, did the Times have? As Warner Wolf would say, Let's go to the videotape.

For starters: Was it, or was it not, about sex? Executive Editor Bill Keller maintained it wasn't. And yet, the third sentence of the story the third sentence began, "Convinced the relationship had become romantic.." That means the story was about sex. In fact, the whole implicit point seemed to be that McCain was somehow trading political favors for sexual favors. Yet the principals all denied there was a sexual relationship, and the Times never came close to proving one.

It was a case of the Times wanting its cake (the titillating hook of an illicit sexual relationship) and eating it too (endeavoring to keep itself above such tawdriness).

Well then, what else was here?

The first third of the story introduces our heroine, Ms. Iseman, and sets up the premise of McCain as a reformer who may not quite live up to his own ideals.

The next third is basically exposition it revisits McCain's friendship with savings and loan scoundrel Charlie Keating, his disgrace at being pulled down in Keating's undertow and his subsequent self-reinvention as an ethics champion. This part does wind up by saying lobbyists have worked for McCain's campaigns alas, a not-uncommon occurrence in Washington.

It's only the final third of the story that discusses the McCain-Iseman relationship in detail, laying out with some persuasion that it was uncomfortably cozy and probably inappropriate, but offering no proof whatever that it was romantic.

And it is only here, at the story's end, that we get a handful of specifics about the senator intervening with federal agencies on behalf of Ms. Iseman's clients, or offering some favorable legislation or flying on one of their corporate jets.

Were McCain's actions in fact hypocritical? Possibly. Were they shocking or surprising? Hardly. Illegal? It wouldn't seem so.

As I say, there is plenty of time for the Times to vindicate itself. You can imagine the reporters "knew" a lot more than they could print, and as November approaches we voters will want to know whether candidate McCain lives his principles.

But in this instance, the paper's ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, got it right when he wrote, "The pity of it is that, without the sex, The Times was on to a good story" about

McCain's cavalier regard for ethical appearances. But, he concluded, "if you cannot provide readers with some independent evidence, I think it is wrong to report the suppositions or concerns of anonymous aides about whether the boss is getting into the wrong bed."

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