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February 25, 2008

Cliff Notes Version of the Q and A with New York Times Readers About the McCain Investigation

Here is my condensed, re-aranged version of the Q and A with readers that ran in the New York Times Feb. 21. It was meant to explain the decision-making that went into its article on John McCain's involvement with lobbyist Vicki Iseman.

You can read theirs. Or try mine, which distills theirs down to the press think in it.

This is derived from the Q and A with readers that ran in the New York Times Feb. 21, intended to explain what led to this article from the day before, an explosive report on John McCain’s involvement with lobbyist Vicki Iseman. The paper said it had received more than 2,400 comments on the article and 4,000 questions from readers.

Were you surprised by the reactions?

Yes. We were prepared for the usual attacks. But dissatisfaction runs across the political spectrum; that really surprised us. Our story is about a contradiction in McCain’s character that came to a head in 2000 when his aides confronted him about Vicki Iseman. We think that’s something that voters in 2008 need to know about. A great many of our readers evidently disagree.

Did the times violate its standards on anonymity?

Not at all. We went by the book. Senior editors knew the identities of the sources for this story. We tried to get our sources to go on the record. We always do. We report around them, we also try to persuade them. In the end some refuse and we decide to trust them. But never blindly.

Why did the Times endorse McCain if it knew about this story?

You’re asking the wrong people. We’re from the newsroom. We don’t do editorials. We have nothing to do with endorsements. Separate department. They don’t coordinate with us, or we with them. Were they aware of our story? Yeah, probably they were aware. We actually have no idea why they endorsed McCain. Does that answer your question?

Weren’t you concerned for the woman’s privacy?

Very much so, we wrestle with that all the time. Look, it’s a story about a senator’s relationship with a lobbyist who had interests before his committee. We had to name the lobbyist! We ran the best photo of her we could find from a reputable agency.

Why drop a bombshell like “McCain may have had an affair with a lobbyist” into a story when you don’t know if it’s true?

Because the people who told us they believed it are people we decided to believe.

But why even include the stuff about McCain aides thinking “the relationship had become romantic” when the story could have run without it?

The aides told us a number of things concerned them about Iseman and McCain. Her ubiquity, what she was saying to others about access, the business her firm had before the Commerce committe, and their belief that a romance had begun. They took it seriously enough to confront their boss; we wanted to explain why. If, worried about spreading innuendo, we had edited out their belief in the romance, that would not be telling readers what we know. It would not be a complete and accurate reflection of what our sources told us. We can’t do that and remain the New York Times. We had to put it in.

The timing: Why now?

We publish stories when they’re ready. Period. No matter when we publish them people see dark motives.

What was McCain’s response when you told him what you were prepared to report?

McCain would not sit for an interview with our reporters. Concerned about the story, he called the Times to speak to Bill Keller. Keller asked him whether he had a romantic or sexual relationship with Iseman. He said he did not. His people spoke to Times reporters and provided some documents but not all we asked for.

Your defense of your story seems strangely passive. How can you allow yourself to be punching bags on TV and in the political sphere, but still convince the public that controversial stories have real merit?

Good question! We don’t really know. We don’t trust television to be anything more than spectacle. We don’t like becoming the story. But we also want to stick up for ourselves and the painstaking work that goes into these articles. We’re conflicted.

Has access to McCain or his campaign suffered in the aftermath of the story?


How can you cover the Republican side of the election when the presumptive nominee is crusading against the Times, and raising money off the fervor?

We’ll be fine. McCain will drop this soon. And his campaign people know that cutting off access to a newspaper as influential as The Times just limits their ability to get their message out.

Are you going to be as tough on the Democrats as you were on McCain in this story?

Yes, we will. We already have. (Links)

McCain’s lawyer gave you a list: a dozen times McCain sided against Isemanís clients. Did you leave this out?

No, we checked into them. Some checked out. Some didn’t. One that did ran in the story. Some were too murky to tell where McCain stood. We would love to report more on this.

Any regrets about running the story?

None. Would do it again. It was an excellent story and we’re proud of it.

To comment, go here. Related post: Public Editor to Bill Keller: “You Haven’t Got it.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at February 25, 2008 1:01 AM