- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2008

The elaborate stories in The Washington Post and the New York Times yesterday suggesting Sen. John McCain had questionable dealings with an attractive telecommunications lobbyist drew mixed reviews from observers who questioned the timing of the accounts and their heavy reliance on unnamed sources.

“It’s fair to challenge the New York Times story in particular. The paper should have been more transparent about why and how they did the story, and more revealing about the use of unnamed sources. Also, why did they focus on this story now?” said Robert M. Steele, who analyzes news ethics for the Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism research group.

“The Times would be wise to be accountable for its reasons and its methods in the McCain story, instead of waiting for the attacks to come,” Mr. Steele said, cautioning that unnamed sources should be used only in rare cases, and with plenty of vetting from editors and reporters.

He would not go so far as to call the Times story unfair. The paper did not specifically say the Arizona Republican had a romantic liaison with blond lobbyist Vicki Iseman, but instead presented the perception of it, he said.

“The larger scrutiny is on Mr. McCain’s relationship with lobbyists over the years,” Mr. Steele said.

Critics detected unsavory motives with both The Post and the Times and were particularly vexed at the Gray Lady.

“The story is not the story. The story is the drive-by media turning on its favorite maverick and trying to take him out. The media picked the GOP’s candidate, the New York Times endorsed him while they sat on this story, and is now, with utter predictability, trying to destroy him,” talk radio host Rush Limbaugh said yesterday.

Media Research Center President L. Brent Bozell III called the Times account a “patently politically motivated hit job, a 10-year-old piece of gossip,” while Human Events editor Jed Babbin said, “The New York Times is not in the news business. They’re political activists posing as news people.”

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, meanwhile, said the unfolding McCain situation was “eerily similar” to the Monica Lewinsky matter of a decade ago. In January 1998, rumor-fueled coverage revealed that President Clinton had dallied with a White House intern. Stringent competition erupted between Newsweek — which had the original scoop but held it — and the Drudge Report, ABC News and the Wall Street Journal, which collectively spilled the details.

Similar drama went on with the crafting of the McCain story.

The Times, according to the New Republic, had delayed publication of the story since December, at Executive Editor William Keller’s request — reportedly prompting the resignation of Marilyn Thompson, one of four reporters who had labored over the account. She has since returned to her former paper — The Washington Post, where she will be a “Washington accountability” editor.

“We have a big mess that has galvanized conservatives and lowered the reputation of the media one more notch,” Will Bunch, a political writer with the Philadelphia Daily News, said yesterday. He characterized the Times’ coverage as “inept.”

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