The political fallout of the NYT's McCain story

48 hours after the New York Times published its McCain article, the controversy has been centered just as much on the newspaper's handling of the article as with the allegations. And that is hardly surprising, given that the Arizona Senator had two months to prepare its counter-offensive, ever since word first leaked on Drudge that the Times was working on such a story.

The New Republic's much-awaited story on the behind-the-scenes struggle at the Times came out a few days ago, and it is a must-read to understand just how much the paper looks to have agonized over this, with editors repeatedly overruling reporters and how many times the story was reshaped and rewritten. In fact, TNR explains that the process even claimed its victims, as one reporter left the campaign trail and another left the Times to go to the Washington Post. In response, the NYT came out with this long list of answers to questions supplied by readers on its website yesterday, defending the wait ("We publish stories when they are ready. That means we have nailed down all the facts to our satisfaction."), and the use of innuendo.

It's hard to not sympathize with the frustration over the article's timing. If the article had come in December when it was first leaked, McCain might not have gotten very far in the nomination fight. Remember, this was the time in which McCain was beginning his stunning surge (I wrote a post entitled "McCain has the buzz, but can he go all the way?" on December 21st). McCain was not the front-runner in late December, he was still low in polls and benefiting from an under-the-radar campaign to try and rise. The NYT story, whatever its merits, could have killed his comeback in its infant stage, so McCain's Republican opponents have good reason to be angry today (Politico's Jonathan Martin gets Huckabee aides and former Romney aides to vent their frustration).

It is one thing for a paper to not publish a story until it has all the facts straightened out, but TNR's account of the controversy implies that the story was mostly ready by December or early January (with reporters working round the clock until Christmas) and that the writers felt they "had nailed it." Perhaps the NYT should then not have tried to do too much -- the story is so big in scope, going back all the way to the Keating Five in an attempt to fit this in an overall narrative -- and just printed what they were ready with in early January, when it was still relevant for the GOP primary. Does a paper not have a duty to inform the public of information it detains in due time? The NYT does not even have the (in any case unconvincing) excuse of the demands of national security on this one, like it did in the wiretapping article it held for months in 2004-2005. (Update: The NYT's public editor is rebuffing the paper, in particular for its focus on the sex issue that should have been left out).

So what are the consequences of the article going forward? McCain's counter-attack has been remarkably effective, and it has allowed the conservative movement to rally around the GOP nominee. Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham are now bashing the NYT instead of McCain, and that is the biggest gift McCain could have hoped for right now. Sure, these talk-show hosts are framing this as a critique of McCain's tendency to befriend the media(Said Ingraham, "I'm not surprised in the least that the NYT would try to take out John McCain. Predicted this, in fact, way back in the early 2000s. Sen. McCain courted the media, cultivated them, even bragged that the media was his ‘base.'")

And is it surprising that McCain is benefiting from such an impulsive conservative reaction given that the Times almost buried the revelations of McCain's unethical dealings with Iseman behind sexual innuendos? The Right distrusts the media to remarkable extends, but the NYT made their bashing job much easier by allowing them to discredit the article over the suggestion over an affair, and very little is now being said about whether McCain's ethical ties to Iseman were too close for comfort.

But McCain could still have much more to worry about, because of The Washington Post, which is continuing to explore this story with articles of limited scope that are putting the Senator in an increasingly difficult position and that are much more difficult for conservatives to dismiss. In particular, the controversy is now centering on McCain's assertion at his Thursday press conference that he never had a meeting with Iseman or with broadcaster Lowell Paxson. The WaPo is now reporting that Paxson is contradicting McCain's comments, saying that he did meet with McCain to urge him to talk to the FCC to defend his interests. In fact, Newsweek discovered that McCain himself had testified in a 2002 hearing that he had been contacted by Paxson! This is the matter that has long been controversial. As the Washington Post reminds us,

The two letters he wrote to the FCC in 1999 while he was chairman of the Senateate Commerce Committee produced a rash of criticism and a written rebuke from the then-FCC chairman, who called McCain's intervention "highly unusual." McCain had repeatedly used Paxson's corporate jet for his campaign and accepted campaign contributions from the broadcaster and his law firm.

To make matters worse, Paxson told the Washington Post that Iseman was "probably" at this meeting and that she helped arrange the meeting. This would get McCain cut in a direct lie, in the very press conference that was meant to counter the NYT's allegations. David Brooks, who can hardly be suspected of wanting to help Democrats, wrote in his latest column, He didn’t just say he didn’t remember a meeting about Iseman. He said there was no meeting. If it turns out that there is evidence of an affair and a meeting, then his presidential hopes will be over." The situation is certainly not as dramatic as Brooks is putting it here, but there is no question McCain has digged himself a hole on this issue.


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