Thursday, February 21, 2008

New York Times Disgracefully Smears McCain

It used to be that the New York Times stood by its motto: All The News That's Fit To Print." Part of this was that it did not write much of anything about sex.

No more. Under the present executive editor, Bill Keller, the NYT now writes a good deal about sex, and twice in recent months it has smeared a major personality without good reason.

The first occasion was an article suggesting that CNBC star reporter Maria Bartiromo had an improper relationship with a Citibank executive. A great deal was made out of the fact that she had flown with him on the corporate plane. The story caused a momentary flurry, but CNBC stuck with Bartiromo, she kept her job, and is just as outstanding as ever. There was absolutely no proof in the New York Times story that anything improper had really occurred.

Now, this morning, in a front page story with an unusual four bylines, the New York Times suggests that prior to his 2000 presidential campaign more than eight years ago, McCain had too close a relationship with a lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, three decades his junior and that his staff warned him against such ties.

Quite high in the story, these reporters write:

"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."

The reporters were not there to personally observe the relationship, if any, between McCain and Iseman. They should not be writing based on what some disgruntled anonymous former staffers have told them. They have no proof, and since everything they talk about in this relationship occurred years ago. this story is not timely.

This story, in short, should never have run. As the CBS Morning News headlined it this morning, it is a "smear campaign," and it is not the first time in this vital campaign year that the New York Times has set out to smear a conservative candidate. It did the same thing with a whole series of grossly negative stories on former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Faced with the same depressing economic situation that confronts many newspapers these days, and new competition in covering politics from the now Rupert Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal, the New York Times has accepted lower standards. Keller recently announced a staff reduction of 100 persons. Revenue at the newspaper was down 8.2% in December compared to a year ago, with advertising revenue off 12% and circulation revenue down 0.6%, despite a price increase.

The same trends are manifest at the Los Angeles Times, but the Los Angeles Times has avoided unscrupulous and unfair political coverage this year. It may not always be as interesting as the New York Times coverage, or as comprehensive. But it has commendably avoided wearing its heart on its sleeve, except on the editorial page, where, of course, the expression of opinions is proper.

The story reports that McCain called Keller to protest the impending story. If this is so, he picked the wrong man. Keller is bullheaded and will not easily admit the paper is in the wrong. He should have called the publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., who caves in under pressure.

(Added Feb. 22: The New Republic is reporting that Keller, for a time, had reservations about the story, but that it was pressed forward by the Times' Washington bureau chief, Dean Baquet. However, Keller bears the final responsibility for the decision to publish the article, and he assumes it again in his response to over 2,400 reader messages, most of them condemning the article. Keller's mealy-mouthed response stamps him as insensitive and unfair).

With the passions running high this year, and the Democrats set to nominate either the first major black or woman candidate for the Presidency, we face the prospect of what could be a nasty campaign. I was talking just this morning to a college classmate who has been national treasurer of four Democratic presidential campaigns, and he expressed great concern that a huge independent advertising campaign, not directly tied to the McCain campaign, could sink either Sen. Barack Obama or Sen. Hillary Clinton. He is backing Hillary, in part because he thinks she would be better able to withstand this.

I expressed hope Obama, who now appears the more likely Democratic nominee, could effectively fight back as well, pointing out that the Clintons' negative campaigning against him in the primaries has not proved very effective. He has fought back, I think, quite skillfully.

But such talk presumes that the smears are going to come from politicians or independent committees, in short through advertising.

If they are coming from major newspapers, it is really going to be rough. I don't think the American people will stand for it. Journalists are already distrusted enough, without piling more public revulsion on their heads.

The New York Times assault this morning on McCain is reprehensible. I've felt for some time that the weak NYT publisher, Sulzberger, made a very serious mistake when he allowed Keller to replace the highly principled and talented Howell Raines as executive editor.
When I read the article this morning signed by Jim Rutenberg, Marilyn W. Thompson, David D. Kirkpatrick and Stephen Latoton (not particularly prominent bylines by the way), I knew I was right.

McCain and his staff, I'm sure, can take care of themselves. McCain faced down his brutal captors in North Vietnam, and he can face down unscrupulous newspapermen. But this whole episode is too bad, and there ought to be the strongest protests both from the political world and ordinary citizens to today's smear of McCain in the New York Times.

The McCain campaign issued a statement which was printed at the end of the NYT story, saying, in part, "Americans are sick and tired of this kind of gutter politics, and there is nothing in this story to suggest that John McCain has ever violated the principles that have guided his career."

I would add, simply, this story is investigative journalism at its worse.



Blogger mac said...

Funny about Republicans when their oxen are gored. There is a lot more to find out about Mccain when he was a POW. May not be quite the hero he pretends.

2/21/2008 2:34 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

No doubt in my mind, the first act of President John McCain is to order his staff to NOT issue credentials to anyone associated with the NY TIMES or anyone who sells anything to the NY TIMES. Freeze out a newspaper that is becoming more about YELLOW JOURNALISM than the truth anymore. Keep them out of the White House and let them pay the price for a slanderous article.

2/21/2008 4:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, McCain is no saint, having been involved in the Keating 5 scandal and sending birthday greetings in 1995 to Joseph "Joe Bananas" Bonano, the head of the New York Bonano crime family, who had retired to Arizona. So jolly good that the New York Times ran a story about how this candidate for president was someone arrogant enough not worry about the appearance of impropriety during his failed campaign in 2000. Raises questions about his judgement. You're somebody who clearly knows little about the NYT news managers you rail against and you should mention the fact you're very friendly with deposed exec. editor Howell Raines,a not loved character at the paper who you plug constantly without proper attribution.

2/21/2008 8:58 PM  
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