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The New York Times' legal, if not journalistic, triumph

The paper fended off a defamation suit over an article about Sen. John McCain and a lobbyist. But it overreached for a story ripe with sex, distracting from a more important story about influence.

February 20, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

The editor of the New York Times said how proud he was of one of the paper's campaign investigations of John McCain. Another top Timesman praised the same story as "a powerful examination" of a politician's apparent blindness to ethical concerns.

You would have thought they moved the Pulitzer Prizes up a couple of months when, actually, the crowing from the Newspaper of Record came Thursday, after its success in fending off a $27-million defamation case. It did so without paying a dime to the plaintiff, Washington lobbyist Vicki Iseman, or admitting it did anything wrong.

I can't blame the Times for celebrating a legal victory I think it deserved.

But running free out the courthouse door hardly amounts to winning the high journalistic ground.

Nothing in the intervening year since its publication changes the fact that the Times' story about McCain and Iseman contained an essential flaw: It overreached for a story ripe with sex and thereby distracted from a much more important story about influence.

The Times story ran just after McCain emerged from a nearly yearlong slough of despond -- paltry fundraising, lagging poll numbers, badly depleted staff -- to become the apparent Republican presidential nominee.

Headlined "For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk," the 3,000-word front-page story looked at the candidate's close ties to Iseman, going back to 1999 and his previous run for president.

The piece focused on concerns of McCain's aides about frequent interactions between McCain, now 72, and Iseman, now 41. It quoted anonymous sources who said the Arizona senator's aides became "convinced the relationship had become romantic . . . and intervened to protect the candidate from himself."

Another strand of the story suggested that McCain had taken actions in the Senate that helped clients of Iseman, who represented the telecommunications industry on a number of issues.

The latter focus could have been devastating to McCain, who built his political profile around the notion he could not be bought. But because the Times raised the implication of an affair, without proving it, McCain and his allies were able to ignore their hypocrisy and instead rail against a favorite whipping boy -- the dastardly, liberal press.

In the story and its many regurgitations, especially on cable TV, people had to wonder whether the grandfatherly McCain had been running around with that pretty young blond, when they should have been wondering whether the Republican presidential candidate had been running around with lobbyists who wanted their way with his powerful Senate Commerce Committee.

I'm far from alone in believing that the Feb. 21, 2008, story went off into the weeds. New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt concluded that the paper hadn't offered adequate proof of an affair. The Boston Globe, the paper's sister publication, spiked the Times story and instead ran the Washington Post's version, which did not include the sex angle.

After the story's publication, pundits who had little good to say about McCain, such as Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham, suddenly rallied to his defense. Both the Republican Party and the McCain campaign launched Internet fundraisers to rebut the Times.

It all reminded me a bit of another piece of reportorial overreaching -- Dan Rather's 2004 report on CBS that claimed newly discovered memos proved President Bush got special treatment that allowed him to skip out on his commitment as a young man to the Texas Air National Guard.

I was one of a bunch of reporters who -- both here at the Los Angeles Times and at several other publications -- had collected interviews and documents that offered a more nuanced portrait of Bush: a young pilot of potential who ended up with a spotty record and barely enough credits for an honorable discharge.

But the flawed CBS report allowed White House operatives to ignore those stories.

Instead, they unleashed their fury on boogeyman Rather and memos that he and CBS later had to concede they could not authenticate.

As a result of Thursday's unusual settlement, the New York Times issued a slew of documents -- a note to readers, an essay from Iseman's lawyers arguing for a more civil public discourse, and a rebuttal from Times Editor Bill Keller.

Into the night, a lively argument continued between Iseman, who celebrated what she called the newspaper's "retraction and clarification," and the Times, which said it had not backed down one inch.

The Times' "Note to Readers," printed in this morning's paper, says that the original article "did not state, and the Times did not intend to conclude, that Ms. Iseman had engaged in a romantic affair with Senator McCain or an unethical relationship on behalf of her clients in breach of the public trust."

That much might have been implicit in the story. But it wasn't explicit. The result: McCain & Co. got to chatter on about an "affair" that didn't matter. They spent much less time answering whether lobbyists had a cozy seat on the Straight Talk Express.


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