POLITICS FEBRUARY 21, 2008
Last night, around dinnertime, The New York Times postedon its website a 3,000-word investigation detailing Senator John McCain’s connections to a telecommunications lobbyist named Vicki Iseman. The controversial piece, written by Washington bureau reporters Jim Rutenberg, Marilyn Thompson, Stephen Labaton, and David Kirkpatrick, and published in this morning’s paper, explores the possibility that the Republican presidential candidate may have had an affair with the 40-year-old blond-haired lobbyist for the telecommunications industry while he chaired the Senate Commerce Committee in the late-1990s.
Beyond its revelations, however, what’s most remarkable about the article is that it appeared in the paper at all: The new information it reveals focuses on the private matters of the candidate, and relies entirely on the anecdotal evidence of McCain’s former staffers to justify the piece--both personal and anecdotal elements unusual in the Gray Lady. The story is filled with awkward journalistic moves--the piece contains a collection of decade-old stories about McCain and Iseman appearing at functions together and concerns voiced by McCain’s aides that the Senator shouldn’t be seen in public with Iseman--and departs from the Times' usual authoritative voice. At one point, the piece suggestively states: “In 1999 she began showing up so frequently in his offices and at campaign events that staff members took notice. One recalled asking, ‘Why is she always around?’” In the absence of concrete, printable proof that McCain and Iseman were an item, the piece delicately steps around purported romance and instead reports on the debate within the McCain campaign about the alleged affair.
What happened? The publication of the article capped three months of intense internal deliberations at the Times over whether to publish the negative piece and its most explosive charge about the affair. It pitted the reporters investigating the story, who believed they had nailed it, against executive editor Bill Keller, who believed they hadn’t. It likely cost the paper one investigative reporter, who decided to leave in frustration. And the Times ended up publishing a piece in which the institutional tensions about just what the story should be are palpable.
The McCain investigation began in November, after Rutenberg, who covers the political media and advertising beat, got a tip. Within a few days, Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet assigned Thompson and Labaton to join the project and, later, conservative beat reporter David Kirkpatrick to chip in as well. Labaton brought his expertise with regulatory issues to the team, and Thompson had done investigative work: At The Washington Post in the 1990s she had edited Michael Isikoff’s reporting on the Paula Jones scandal, and in 2003 she broke the story that Strom Thurmond had secretly fathered a child with his family’s black maid. Having four reporters thrown on the story showed just what a potential blockbuster the paper believed it might have.
From the outset, the Times reporters encountered stiff resistance from the McCain camp. After working on the story for several weeks, Thompson learned that McCain had personally retained Bill Clinton’s former attorney Bob Bennett to defend himself against the Times’ questioning. At the same time, two McCain campaign advisers, Mark Salter and Charlie Black, vigorously pressed the Times reporters to drop the matter. And in early December, McCain himself called Keller to deny the allegations on the record.
In early December, according to sources with knowledge of the events, Thompson requested a meeting with Bennett to arrange access to the senator and to discuss why the Republican presidential candidate had sought out a criminal lawyer in the first place. Bennett agreed to meet, and on the afternoon of December 18, Labaton, Rutenberg, and Thompson arrived at his Washington office. During a one-hour meeting, according to sources, Bennett admonished the Times reporters to be fair to McCain, especially in light of the whisper campaign that had sundered his 2000 presidential bid in South Carolina. He told them that he would field any questions they had, and promised to provide answers to their queries. Of the reporters in the room, Bennett knew Labaton the best. In the 1990s, Labaton had covered the Whitewater investigation, and Bennett viewed him as a straight-shooting, accurate reporter who could be reasoned with. Rutenberg he knew less well, and Bennett was miffed that Rutenberg had been calling all over Washington asking probing questions about McCain and his dealings with Iseman. The rumors were bound to get out.
Two days after that meeting, on December 20, news of the Times’ unpublished investigation burst into public view when Matt Drudge posted an anonymously sourced item on the Drudge Report. “MEDIA FIREWORKS: MCCAIN PLEADS WITH NY TIMES TO SPIKE STORY,” the headline proclaimed; the story hinted around the core of the allegations and focused on Keller’s decision to hold the piece. “Rutenberg had hoped to break the story before the Christmas holiday,” the item said, quoting unnamed sources, “but editor Keller expressed serious reservations about journalism ethics and issuing a damaging story so close to an election.”
Immediately, the media pounced on the budding scandal. “If John McCain has hired Bob Bennett as his lawyer,” one commentator said on Fox News, “that's a big--you don't hire Bob Bennett to knock down a press story. You hire Bob Bennett because you have serious legal issues somehow.” On MSNBC, Pat Buchanan speculated that the Times newsroom was the source of the leak. “They’ve been rebuffed and rebuffed on this story, and they say we’ve had it, and they go around then and Drudge pops it just like he popped the Monica Lewinsky story first.”
Initially, the McCain campaign refused to acknowledge the Drudge post. But by the afternoon of December 20, McCain denied the allegations at a press conference in Detroit, and his campaign released a statement deriding the Drudge item as “gutter politics.”
Rumors of the unpublished Times piece swirled through the Romney campaign, then still locked in a tight dogfight for the Republican nomination. After the Drudge item flashed, Romney’s traveling press secretary Eric Fehrnstrom went to the back of the campaign plane to ask New York Times reporter Michael Luo, who was covering Romney, if he had heard when the piece was running.
Inside the Times newsroom, the Drudge item sent the McCain piece into hiding, making it both tightly guarded and “a topic of conversation,” as one staffer put it. “The fact that it ended up on Drudge pushed it into secrecy,” added another staffer. “The paper gets constipated on these things,” a veteran former Times staffer said, describing the editors’ deliberations over whether to run the piece.
In late December, according to Times sources, Keller told the reporters and the story’s editor, Rebecca Corbett, that he was holding the piece in part because they could not secure documentary proof of the alleged affair beyond anecdotal evidence. Keller felt that given the on-the-record-denials by McCain and Iseman, the reporters needed more than the circumstantial evidence they had assembled to prove the case. The reporters felt they had the goods.
The Drudge item didn’t derail the investigation, however. By late December, the reporters had submitted several pages of written questions to Bennett for comment, and completed a draft of the piece before the New Year. But to their growing frustration, Keller ordered rounds of changes and additional reporting. According to Times sources, Baquet remained an advocate for his reporters and pushed the piece to be published, but sources say Keller wanted a more nuanced story looking less at personal matters and more at questions of Iseman’s lobbying and McCain’s legislative record. (The Washington-New York divide is an eternal rift at the Paper of Record: Baquet had successfully brought stability and investigative acumen to the Washington bureau; with the McCain piece, he was being sucked into his first major struggle with New York.)
In mid-January, Keller told the reporters to significantly recast the piece after several drafts had circulated among editors in Washington and New York. After three different versions, the piece ended up not as a stand-alone investigation but as an entry in the paper’s “The Long Run” series looking at presidential candidates’ career histories.
It was at about that time, amidst flurries of rumors swirling about the looming Times investigation, that the Times’ McCain beat reporter, Marc Santora, abruptly left the campaign trail after covering the senator for four and a half months, frustrated by the McCain rumors. A rising star at the paper, Santora had been working grueling hours, joining the 2008 election coverage straight from a reporting assignment in Baghdad. As the campaign headed to South Carolina, the site of McCain’s defeat in 2000, Santora e-mailed the Times' deputy Washington editor, Richard Stevenson, to vent about how the rumors were dogging him on the campaign trail, and left the McCain beat on January 10. “The last thing I wanted was to be a pawn in this thing,” Santora told me. “I was exhausted, there were a lot of rumors flying around. I thought the best thing for me to do was take a break.”
Santora wasn’t the last casualty of the process. Two weeks ago, in early February, Marilyn Thompson, one of the four reporters working on the McCain investigation quit the Times. Thompson had been a staffer at The Washington Post for 14 years, until 2004. She had spent just six months at the Times and recorded only four bylines before accepting an offer to return to her former employer as an editor overseeing the Post’s accountability coverage of money and politics. According to sources, Thompson became increasingly dispirited with the delays, and worked around the clock through the Christmas vacation on the piece, only to see the investigation sputter. Declining to comment on the investigation itself, Thompson told me her decision to return to the Post “was an opportunity to go back to the place that has been a home to me.” (Thompson celebrated her byline during her last week at the Times. Her final day at the paper is tomorrow.)
Some observers say that the piece, published today, was not ready to roll. On Wednesday evening, much of the cable news commentary focused on the Times’ heavy use of innuendo and circumstantial evidence. This morning, Time magazine managing editor Rick Stengel told MSNBC that he wouldn’t have published such a piece. Since the story broke, the McCain campaign has been doing its best to pin the story on the Times and make the media angle the focus.
Indeed, when TNR started reporting on the whereabouts of the story on February 4th, all parties seemed intent on denying its viability. “There’s absolutely no story there. And it’d be a mistake for you to write about a non-story that didn’t run,” McCain adviser Charlie Black told me last week. “Drudge shouldn’t have put that up. He didn’t know what the hell he was doing.”
McCain communications director Jill Hazelbaker told me last week the campaign had no further comment beyond the December 20 statement assailing the allegations. According to McCain advisers, the Times reporters hadn’t contacted the campaign about the investigation for several weeks before the piece ran, and only a few reporters from competing news organizations have put in calls on the matter. Two members of the McCain team had contacted TNR’s editor to pressure him not to investigate the story.
Of course, each of these sources had reason to keep the story from breaking. But what actually pushed it into publication? The reporters working on the investigation declined to comment. In an e-mail to me on February 19, Keller wrote: “This sounds like a pointless exercise to me--speculating about reporting that may or may not result in an article. But if that's what Special Correspondents of The New Republic do, speculate away. When we have something to say, we'll say it in the paper.”
Late in the day on February 19, Baquet sent a final draft of the Times piece to Keller and Times managing editor Jill Abramson in New York. After a series of discussions, the three editors decided to publish the investigation. “We published the story when it was ready which is what we always do,” Baquet told TNR this morning. He added: “Nothing forced our hand. Nothing pushed us to move faster other than our own natural desire that we wanted to get a story in the paper that met all of our standards.”
When the Times did finally publish the long-gestating investigation last night, the McCain camp immediately tried to train the glare back on the Gray Lady. In fact, McCain advisers stated that TNR’s inquiries pressured the Times to publish its story before it was ready so this magazine wouldn’t scoop the Times’ piece. “They did this because The New Republic was going to run a story that looked back at the infighting there, the Judy Miller-type power struggles--they decided that they would rather smear McCain than suffer a story that made The New York Times newsroom look bad,” Salter told reporters last night in Toledo, Ohio.
This morning, after the piece ran, and as TNR’s article was about to be posted, Keller finally responded to repeated requests for interviews. In an e-mail, he defended the substance, and the timing, of the story. “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.” Important as the story may indeed turn out to be, it may have provided the Times’ critics with a few caveats too many.
Gabriel Sherman is a Special Correspondent to The New Republic.