NYT Says Readers Idiots; McCain Sex Story Not About Sex

The hubbub caused by the New York Times‘ front page allegations that John McCain had an improper relationship with a lobbyist took a bizarre new turn today, with editor Bill Keller saying the paper’s readers misunderstood the story and public editor Clark Hoyt mystified that the story was published at all.

BILL KELLER, the executive editor of The Times, said the article about John McCain that appeared in Thursday’s paper was about a man nearly felled by scandal who rebuilt himself as a fighter against corruption but is still “careless about appearances, careless about his reputation, and that’s a pretty important thing to know about somebody who wants to be president of the United States.”

But judging by the explosive reaction to the 3,000-word article, most readers saw it as something else altogether. They saw it as a story about illicit sex. And most were furious at The Times.

Sheesh, how could the readers be so stupid as to take a front page story in the self-proclaimed Newspaper of Record about suspicions of an affair from nine-years ago as a story about a sex scandal?

The article was notable for what it did not say: It did not say what convinced the advisers that there was a romance. It did not make clear what McCain was admitting when he acknowledged behaving inappropriately — an affair or just an association with a lobbyist that could look bad. And it did not say whether Weaver, the only on-the-record source, believed there was a romance. The Times did not offer independent proof, like the text messages between Detroit’s mayor and a female aide that The Detroit Free Press disclosed recently, or the photograph of Donna Rice sitting on Gary Hart’s lap.

It was not for want of trying. Four highly respected reporters in the Washington bureau worked for months on the story and were pressed repeatedly to get sources on the record and to find documentary evidence like e-mail. If McCain had been having an affair with a lobbyist seeking his help on public policy issues, and The Times had proved it, it would have been a story of unquestionable importance.

But in the absence of a smoking gun, I asked Keller why he decided to run what he had. “If the point of the story was to allege that McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, we’d have owed readers more compelling evidence than the conviction of senior staff members,” he replied. “But that was not the point of the story. The point of the story was that he behaved in such a way that his close aides felt the relationship constituted reckless behavior and feared it would ruin his career.”

So, it’s acceptable to run uncorroborated smears if 1) the reporters tried really, really hard to get corroboration and the 2) smears were only part of the story? Hoyt is a bit skeptical.

I think that ignores the scarlet elephant in the room. A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.

One would certainly think.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2008, Media, , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Triumph says:

    The alleged “affair” business was stupid.

    But it doesn’t take away from the REAL story: McCain met numerous times with a telecommunications industry lobbyist and intervened inappropriately on behalf of the lobbyist’s client, and then he lied about his communications with the client.

  2. Shane says:

    The article by the Times was never about a dalliance between McCain and a lobbyist – the article was a shell created to carry an introduction of John McCain to those readers (moderates, independents, political weekend warriors) who don’t know the man. It spent more time going over Keating Five and plane trips than on the relationship in the headline. The article was an expose on McCain’s ‘hypocrisy’ and that’s it.

    I don’t think many of us on the right give the NY Times the credit it deserves. Everyone can recognize that there was no “there” there, and so the charge is that the NY Times jumped on a story without proof. The titillation of the headline served its purpose – millions read the article looking for adultery and instead got a heaping helping of liberal attack on McCain’s strongest suit – ethics.

  3. yetanotherjohn says:

    I would be more impressed with the NYT denial if the subject of the story was the democratic nominee. But when you have a history of abusing people because of their political views, it is hard to buy the position that getting caught in another abuse is the result of the readers being to stupid to understand the whole context.

  4. Hal says:

    when you have a history of abusing people because of their political views

    My god, it’s like you people never lived through the nineties.

    In any event, go ahead and drive the outrage machine to 11, dudes. It really only shows how precious little you really have to work with in your candidate, John McCain.

    I guess a common enemy in the NY Times is pretty much the only way you know how to unite.

    <snicker>

  5. Rick Caird says:

    Here is the problem I have with Hal’s comment above. The NYT claims to have had the story in December, but held it. Now, when, again, did they endorse McCain in the primaries? Doesn’t there seem to be more than a small disconnect here?

    Rick

  6. Hal says:

    Doesn’t there seem to be more than a small disconnect here?

    Why? Did you actually *read* their endorsement? What, exactly, does the current article change about that endorsement?

    Your argument would be far better if they had anything in there about his uprightness, his non-conflict of interests and his non-cozy relationships with lobbyists. Rather, their endorsement was simply that he was simply the lesser of all the available evils – er, Republican candidates…

    Keep plugging away. But do remember that if this is what it takes to unite the base and get them even moderately motivated about voting that it might be useful to remember that the NY Times isn’t going to be running for President.

  7. Hal’s comment is senseless. People of all stripes are outraged about the times treatment of this story, and we’ll soon hear Hal squealing about some conservative media attack on his Messiah and claiming hypocrisy by Republicans who stood against one attack and for another.

    No one expects that an attack from the Times will unite the party behind McCain – unlike Democrats we have principles, and don’t fall to our knees over platitudes and Utopian visions. Republicans take their vote seriously – that’s why McCain has a lot of work ahead…

  8. Hal says:

    No one expects that an attack from the Times will unite the party behind McCain

    True. It’s a pretty sad attempt, but I suppose you have to go with the nominee you have rather than the nominee you wish you had.

    we’ll soon hear Hal squealing about some conservative media attack on his Messiah and claiming hypocrisy by Republicans who stood against one attack and for another.

    Again, I don’t think you people have lived through the 90’s at all. Nor did you seem to be politically aware during the 2004 campaign. Nor have you even heard about John Murtha, or a host of other democrats that have been consistently and rabidly attacked by the Republicans. Even better, I don’t think you even remember the 2000 election when GHWB’s campaign knocked dear John McCain out of the primary in SC with a whisper campaign of a black child born out of wedlock.

    However things turn out, it’s going to be truly hilarious to see the entire Republican party play the victim card during this entire election. And we’ll have the cameras rolling the entire time, guys. It’ll make for some fantastic mashups.

    unlike Democrats we have principles, and don’t fall to our knees over platitudes and Utopian visions

    ROFLMAO. Yes, that’s why you’re the party who wants to make constitutional amendments outlawing flag burning, gay marriage. You’re also the party who went to war with Iraq believing that we’d be greeted as liberators (something McCain has said – on tape, I might add), and that Iraq’s flowering democracy would act as sort of a reverse domino effect across the entire middle east. That’s why the entire Republican primary hasn’t had anything of substance and is instead all about who’s “more conservative”, “who is more pro torture”, who can pander to the evangelicals the best and the non stop trotting out of the mouldering corpse of Ronald Reagan on an almost continual basis.

  9. Steve says:

    Again, I don’t think you people have lived through the 90’s at all.

    Of course, that depends on what your definition on lived is. BTW, that’s on film.

  10. G.A.Phillips says:

    NYT Says Readers Idiots, say no more, say no more.