(CBS) The New York Times' front-page story insinuating a past improper relationship between John McCain and a lobbyist whose clients had business before a powerful Senate committee once chaired by the Arizona senator has shaken up the presidential campaign.
It has also put the newspaper smack in the middle of a bourgeoning journalistic controversy, one being heavily discussed by McCain's campaign as well as independent observers.
The story suggested that the presumptive Republican nominee was involved in a romantic relationship eight years ago with a telecommunications lobbyist named Vicki Iseman. McCain at the time was chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
It stated that former top strategist John Weaver, as well as two unnamed former associates, intervened to keep McCain and Iseman apart out of fear that the perception of an inappropriate relationship could harm McCain's first presidential run. The associates, the story noted, were concerned not only about the image of the corruption-busting candidate's chumminess with a lobbyist, but were also "convinced the relationship had become romantic."
In a press conference this morning, McCain emphatically denied the story and criticized the Times for running it. Campaign advisor Charlie Black told Politico that the campaign would be "going to war" with the paper. Iseman has also denied a relationship, and her lobbying firm, Alcalde & Fay, said in a statement that it was "based upon the fantasies of a disgruntled former campaign employee."
Almost immediately after it appeared, critics assailed the Times for running the story - which the newspaper had been working on for several months - and for the timing of its release. McCain aide Mark Salter suggested to Time magazine that the decision to run the story now resulted from the Times becoming aware that the New Republic was working on a story of its own about internal strife in the Times over whether to run it.
"That sounds about right to me," a former senior Times journalist very familiar with the paper's deliberative process told CBSNews.com. "They would be terrified of people thinking they would be holding the story, for people to think they're soft."
"I think you've got a fair story about lobbyist influence and possibly being too close," the former Times staffer said. "But...any imputation of an affair is from unnamed sources, and that's foul play by the Times' own written standards. The Times' written standards require that they do not base negative accusations on unnamed sources except in very specialized cases."
The Times' standards on unnamed sources can be found here. They include this: "We do not grant anonymity to people who use it as cover for a personal or partisan attack."
Weaver, the only source quoted by name, said in a statement today that the Times was already aware that he had contacted Iseman with concerns that she was misrepresenting her ties with McCain when he was approached by the paper. "I informed the Times, in a written reply, that Ms. Iseman's comments about having strong ties to John's committee staff, personal staff and to him I felt were harmful and not true," he wrote. "And so I informed her and asked to to stop and desist."
Despite questions about how the story was presented, Mike Hoyt, editor of Columbia Journalism Review, said today that it appeared the Times had made the right call in running it.
"It's very difficult to prove an affair," Hoyt said. "You would want to be really slow to intimate that there was one if you're just speculating. But it seems to me that if top aides think there was an affair, and confronted [McCain and Iseman], and it's hooked to this other issue - she's a lobbyist with things she wants out of John McCain - when you add all that up together, it seems to me that it crosses the threshold into a story."
The Washington Post also ran a story on McCain and Iseman's relationship today, but did not include any suggestion of any romantic involvement. In a web chat this morning, Michael Shear, one of the two reporters who wrote the story, said it is "not for me to judge" whether the Times stepped over the line.
"I just want to be clear, especially in this day and age where a story like this becomes chatter on TV and everywhere, what the Post reported and what we didn't," Shear added.
"There are two tests with a story like this: Is it relevant to their public conduct, or does it establish hypocrisy if they cast themselves as a moral figure," said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "[The Times is] suggesting it is salient because it led to him to doing things for her clients that he otherwise would not have done. I'm not sure they've established that."
"The second test you have in doing these personal relationship stories is, what's the proof of the affair? And in the case of this story they don't have any proof," he continued. "The alleged paramour is not suggesting they had a relationship. The crux of the story is, you have anonymous stories saying 'we were worried there might be the appearance of an affair.' That's a somewhat thinner reed to lean against here for the Times. What they're left with is not evidence of an affair, it's evidence of suspicions of an affair."
"When an individual is running for president, the public deserves to know as much as possible about that individual, and that individual's credibility," said Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at the Poynter Institute. "The issue of Senator McCain's relationship with lobbyists has been substantial in the past and is a legitimate issue to explore in the present. The fact that there was concern expressed, apparently significant concerns, by his top aides, is, I would say, newsworthy."
But Steele said that it is essential that the Times have "a very rigorous vetting process at every stage" before running a story like this.
"The Times editors needed an exceptionally high degree of confidence that the story was accurate, fair and meaningful," he said.
In a statement today, the Times' executive editor Bill Keller stood by the story.
"On the substance, we think the story speaks for itself," he said. "On the timing, our policy is, we publish stories when they are ready. 'Ready' means the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction, the subjects have all been given a full and fair chance to respond, and the reporting has been written up with all the proper context and caveats. This story was no exception."
The story has already prompted accusations of liberal bias against the Times, echoing similar suggestions from conservatives in the past. Hoyt said the prospect of such charges should not be a consideration for Times editors.
"You can't help how people are going to characterize any story," Hoyt said. "The Times shouldn't worry about people's perception, they should just worry about if the story is legitimate."
"If it's going to be damaging to the candidate of the Republican Party, lots of people are going to paint it as, 'here comes the liberal New York Times trying to sink our guy,'" he continued. "I don't believe that's true. I don't think they would do that. The stakes are too high, and their own brakes are too good. They're not flawless, and they're not without bias, I'm not saying that. Nobody's without bias. But there is a bias of the reader too. And there are readers who see plots when there aren't any plots."
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