When I picked up the New York Times on Thursday morning from my stoop, I could tell the two-column, front-page story on John McCain was a doozy because there were four reporters credited on the byline and the headline included the words “self-confidence,” “ethics” and “risk” along with McCain’s name. I read the story before any other and got the impression it was a bombshell piece that was well-researched and reported, and would likely knock the McCain camp off kilter for a few days, if not longer. The story hinted at an affair between McCain and lobbyist Vicki Iseman, but had no definitive proof beyond aides who were worried about appearances. But the meat of the piece was McCain's apparent actions in support of Iseman's clients.
As I passed by the N.Y. Times building on 8th Avenue walking to work yesterday morning, the local FOX affiliate was camped outside with two cameras trained on the “New York Times” sign, satellite antenna fully extended, and the engine running. A microphone was sitting on a piece of equipment and the crew was presumably inside the TV van going over their angle on the story – a piece about a Times piece about John McCain and a lobbyist. Maybe I was being naïve in thinking that the real story was anti-special-interest crusader McCain’s cozy professional ties to a lobbyist, but when I saw that van I knew where things were headed.
The argument coming mostly from conservative and Republican circles, along with the McCain camp, is that the story was a “hit piece” by the Times, which, critics say, is taking its first shots at McCain now that he is the presumptive nominee. It’s the smart move from their perspective – attack the messenger to discredit or bury the message, whether it’s true or not.
Craig Shirley, a skilled conservative PR pro who runs Shirley & Bannister PA in Arlington, is working with the McCain camp to bolster its defense in the wake of the story. According to Politico, Shirley recruited McCain skeptic Brent Bozell, who runs a conservative media watchdog group, to hit the Times (he’s had plenty of practice with that) and support the Arizona senator. Shirley’s firm then sent that criticism, along with comments from Pat Buchanan, out to all conservative contacts, ranging from radio hosts to producers to bloggers, Politico reported. It continued:
“As one of the first conservative leaders to come to McCain's defense, Bozell provided ideological cover to others, including morning talk show host Joe Scarborough—another McCain skeptic—to support McCain and go after the Times.”
But the attacks didn’t just come from the right. The New Republicunleashed a 2,200-word piece on the inside baseball drama at the Times that led to the McCain story being published yesterday. The article, a colossal waste of time in my humble opinion, has been widely cited among those out to discredit the Times story by showing reluctance by Times editors to publish the piece before it was ready.
Newsweek, to its credit, actually looked into the meat of the story – McCain’s actions as a senator that appeared to benefit Iseman’s clients, and it came up with a major contradiction from McCain response to the Times.
Just hours after the Times's story was posted, the McCain campaign issued a point-by-point response that depicted the letters as routine correspondence handled by his staff—and insisted that McCain had never even spoken with anybody from Paxson or Alcalde & Fay about the matter. "No representative of Paxson or Alcalde & Fay personally asked Senator McCain to send a letter to the FCC," the campaign said in a statement e-mailed to reporters.
But that flat claim seems to be contradicted by an impeccable source: McCain himself. "I was contacted by Mr. Paxson on this issue," McCain said in the Sept. 25, 2002, deposition obtained by NEWSWEEK. "He wanted their approval very bad for purposes of his business. I believe that Mr. Paxson had a legitimate complaint."
The Times is a favorite target of conservatives, until it runs a story critical of a liberal politician or supporting an issue in the interest of the Right. Then the paper is pointed to as the most hallowed of news institutions.
McCain’s communications director, Jill Hazelbaker, issued a statement lambasting the Times piece as a “hit and run smear campaign.” That’s puzzling, because I don’t see the Times running from the story. In fact, editor Bill Keller put out a statement standing by the article, and the paper ran a follow-up piece today about the reactions. Also, a “campaign” would suggest a pattern of critical coverage, something the Times has not waged against McCain (the paper actually endorsed him earlier this year).
The Times was tough on Bill Clinton, has been brutal but not overly unfair to Bush, and is similarly pulling no punches against Hillary Clinton, and now McCain. I would expect nothing less from a great American newspaper. McCain suggested yesterday that the Times has little credibility in his mind. “I don’t know anything about it,” McCain said to reporters yesterday, addressing the Times piece. “Since it was in The New York Times, I don’t take it at face value.”
He and his team spent most of the day answering the article and are now in Day 2. I sincerely doubt that's your view, senator.
The mobilization of critics hitting the Times for its ethics article blunted the impact of the piece through the initial news cycle. But it remains to be seen if that tactic can stave off more and more scrutiny of McCain's lobbying ties as the days continue.