- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2008


The decision by the New York Times and The Washington Post to revive speculation against John McCain that was discredited eight years ago reflects on their news judgment, common sense and journalistic ethics. Yesterday, as both newspapers drew the media spotlight for their McCain “scoop,” longtime Clinton adviser Lanny Davis first exposed the story to The Washington Times for what it was. In fact, when the allegation that Mr. McCain may have done a favor for a female lobbyist first surfaced in 2000, Mr. Davis told The Post it was false.

It’s puzzling why two widely respected and quoted newspapers that have had their share of scandals — The Post had its scandal in 1981, when it had to return a Pulitzer Prize, because the reporter made up the story, and the New York Times in 2003, when it learned that one of its reporters, Jayson Blair, was making up news stories — didn’t handle the story differently. Mr. Davis, a Democratic stalwart, tried to warn The Post.

Mr. Davis has firsthand knowledge of the case referred to in the New York Times and The Post stories. Paxson Communications, represented at the time by lobbyist Vicky Iseman, wanted to purchase a Pittsburgh television station. Paxson’s bid was pending before the Federal Communications Commission, and Mr. McCain, as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, wrote to the agency because it was dragging out the process. Mr. Davis was involved in lobbying on the same deal, and told The Washington Times yesterday that he is “unhappy” that “McCain’s actions are being described as improper when we went beyond the pale to avoid looking like he was violating an FCC rule.”

When The Post called Mr. Davis four weeks ago, Mr. Davis explained that all Mr. McCain did was to write a “status inquiry letter” to the FCC so the agency “would address the situation as soon as possible.” This, Mr. Davis said, was standard procedure and not anything “special.” During the interview with The Post, Mr. Davis reminded the reporter that he had already cleared Mr. McCain in a statement to that newspaper eight years earlier. But The Post failed yesterday to include that statement. Mr. Davis said the New York Times never contacted him for the McCain story.

At Poynteronline, a blog about journalistic ethics run by the nonpartisan Poynter Institute, journalists questioned the New York Times’ handling of Mr. McCain’s relationship with the lobbyist — which was included as part of a longer story about what were described as the senator’s ethical blindspots. “Quoting mostly unnamed and few named sources, [the New York Times] paints a picture of campaign staffers freaking out at the possibility that McCain was having an affair” with Miss Iseman, Poynter’s Kelly McBride wrote. “No one in the story alleges the two actually had a romantic affair. Every source interviewed suggests that their concern was as much the appearance of Iseman’s frequent presence on the campaign trail, and at events. Most of the people posting comments to the story accuse the New York Times of speculation and rumor-mongering.”

“The Times’ story is about McCain’s contradictory nature,” Miss McBride added. “But leading and ending with the most salacious example of that contradiction guarantees that as the story is retold today, it will become a question of whether McCain had an affair. If that’s what the story is really about, does The Times have an obligation to address it more directly?” Absolutely.

Getting a news story first and getting that story fast are crucial elements of day-to-day journalism — and even more so during a presidential election year. But getting that story right is the most crucial element of all.

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