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“Early in Senator John McCain’s first run for the White House eight years ago, waves of anxiety swept through his small circle of advisers. A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself…”
With those words, the New Yorks Times fired a broadside today at presumptive Republican nominee Sen. John McCain — one that, if it is not proven true, will backfire on the newspaper and journalism as a whole.
The article alleges that McCain had a sexual affair with a 40-year-old lobbyist and that he had written letters supporting that lobbyist’s client. The Times made these allegations indirectly, more through innuendo than outright accusation (it only says aides were worried that something might be going on) and with many more sources anonymous than on the record.
The article appears all the more unusual because the Times recently endorsed McCain for the Republican nomination, despite the fact that it in all likelihood was at least aware of, if not actively working on this story at the time.
Meanwhile, people are asking whether or not the newspaper had enough facts to go with the story. The answer seems to be “no,” according to media critic Jay Rosen at PressThink:
On the question of “the goods,” when I read the story I expected… more. Any report alleging a damaging affair by a current presidential candidate needs to be air tight and locked down, especially when the events in it date from two election cycles ago. But for this purpose the Times has only anonymous sources; that makes me nervous. While any story like this says to readers, “trust us, we’re the New York Times,” this one puts the Times reputation more completely on the line because there is virtually nothing else for us to trust than the rectitude of the people running the paper.
[Continue reading New York Times Risks]
The story is dramatic and potentially devastating to McCain. Because he is his party’s presumptive nominee for the presidency, the Times absolutely must have its facts straight. And those facts must be unimpeachable. What has been run so far seems more like unsubstantiated gossip. That’s bad for the Times and bad for journalism.
First, the Times has long been the poster child for “liberal media” on the right — a charge that the newspaper’s own public editor agreed had some merit. That should not stop the newspaper from critically covering Republicans. However, it should provide even more reason for the Times to make sure that it covers those stories accurately and fairly.
Second, many on the right have said that the media have been overly favorable in their primary coverage of McCain, whom they see as the least conservative candidate in the Republican field. But they also predicted that the media, who they believe want and will actively push for a liberal Democratic president, would turn on McCain as soon as he became the presumptive nominee.
For example, media critic and former CBS staffer Bernard Goldberg said during a recent appearance on The O’Reilly Factor that although the media liked McCain because he was effective at disparaging conservatives, “as soon as it’s McCain against Obama or Clinton the media goes over to the other side.”
Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh has been saying the same thing since last year. So have others. For example, Rosslyn Smith wrote earlier this month: “Can a media narrative about a Republican candidate ever have a truly happy ending? Most Republicans doubt it. The biases have been too ingrained for too long.”
We do not know how this story will turn out. The Times may yet produce evidence to prove its claims. For the sake of journalism, especially during a presidential election year, we certainly hope so. On the other hand, this may turn into another high profile “liberal media” debacle like the CBS Memogate story about President George W. Bush.