Thursday, February 21, 2008

In Which The New York Times Loses Perspective

The chattering classes are in a tizzy today about a New York Times front-page story attacking John McCain’s integrity. The article suggests, among other ethical insinuations, that McCain may have had an extra-marital affair with a then-32-year-old lobbyist about the time of his first presidential campaign, and that his aides took steps to end the affair and hide it from the public. The article reads:

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 — 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.

When news organizations reported that Mr. McCain had written letters to government regulators on behalf of the lobbyist’s client, the former campaign associates said, some aides feared for a time that attention would fall on her involvement.

Mr. McCain, 71, and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, both say they never had a romantic relationship. But to his advisers, even the appearance of a close bond with a lobbyist whose clients often had business before the Senate committee Mr. McCain led threatened the story of redemption and rectitude that defined his political identity.

Politico’s Mike Allen, rounding up a bunch of juicy reaction quotes, sums it up well: “NOTHING ELSE is driving the conversation.” Other reaction here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Look, I voted for Barack Obama, not John McCain, but I think one needs to be honest about one’s reasons for taking a certain position. If the facts are good enough for you, they should be good enough for your audience, so don’t spin them or make up anything beyond your own reasons. This is similar to a point Jon Stewart made when he went on Crossfire several years ago: “[After debates,] you go to spin alley, the place called spin alley. Now, don't you think that, for people watching at home, that's kind of a drag, that you're literally walking to a place called deception lane?... I think they believe President Bush would do a better job. And I believe the Kerry guys believe President Kerry would do a better job. But what I believe is, they're not making honest arguments. So what they're doing is, in their mind, the ends justify the means.” I think the uproarious reaction to this story is an example of just that spin. When I read it, I don’t see evidence of an affair. What I see boils down to, “A man spent a lot of time with a woman, and some people thought it was sexual, but both he and she say it wasn’t.” Tell me, why does this amount to a scandal, or a front-page story? Indeed, McCain aide Mark Salter defends the Senator: “She ATTENDED McCain fundraisers, she didn't ACCOMPANY McCain.”

Why would The Grey Lady print something so unsubstantiated, and place it so prominently? Because they didn't want to get scooped or smeared themselves. Again per Salter, the New Republic was going to run a similar story next week with the added angle that the Times was dragging its feet, and the Times, rather than continuing its reporting and its discussion with the McCain camp, sacrificed truth and integrity and raced to be first AND save its name. I'd call that losing perspective. It's expected of cable and Politico, but not of the New York Flippin' Times. (UPDATE 4:34pm: The New Republic posted said story today.)

The Salter quotes are just the tip of the iceberg. Reaction from the McCain campaign has been fast and furious. Politico: “The McCain campaign is using a two-pronged attack to push back against the story. First, they’ll argue it was a thinly sourced piece of innuendo journalism. But McCain aides will also strike at the source, using the Times’ liberal reputation as a means of self-defense to draw sympathy from the GOP’s conservative base.” I’m ok with the first part of that quote – it’s part of my own argument. But the second attack, that the Times is tabloid rubbish out to destroy the Senator, strikes me as dishonest, the same as the article itself. Remember, the Times did endorse McCain. Attack what they DID, but don’t claim they did even more misdeeds than are true, don’t make up motives or reasons that the article is wrong. The truth is enough. Admittedly, attacking the Times is like attacking the Clintons for the right and might help McCain unify conservatives, but there is never enough justification to engage in distortion.

Ultimately, though, the onus is on the Times. I’m open to truthful attacks on anyone, but not unsubstantiated smears, and without more evidence, printing this seems to be a smear, even if an unintentional one. I probably won’t vote for McCain, but look, let’s not make up reasons for that vote. Again: The. Truth. Is. Enough. And if this article is the truth, fine, prove it before you print it.

The one good thing, I suppose, is that this is early enough in the cycle that by November, it may not matter. True, the flip-flop charges came this early against Kerry, but the difference is Kerry didn’t hit back the way McCain is doing.

(Picture: McCain at Dartmouth College on NH primary day, 01-08-08. I took it.)


A. S. Erickson said...

N.B. I don't think she was 23 at the time of his first campaign because she is currently 40—according to all the reports I've seen.

Nathan Empsall said...

Whoops, you're absolutely right! I must have typed too fast and flipped the numbers, thanks for the catch!