Nets Lead w/ NYT Hit on McCain, But Question Journalistic Standards

All three broadcast network evening newscasts led Thursday night with the New York Times story alleging an improper relationship by John McCain with a female lobbyist, but questions about the journalistic standards of the newspaper were given as much consideration as the allegations against McCain. All three ran a soundbite from Rush Limbaugh denouncing the paper while ABC and CBS featured establishment media observers who castigated the Times for basing a story on the feelings of unnamed sources: Ken Auletta on ABC and Tom Rosenstiel on CBS.

“John McCain began his day answering questions about a story in the New York Times alleging an improper relationship eight years ago with a female lobbyist,” ABC anchor Charles Gibson announced before cautioning: “The story had no evidence the relationship was romantic -- only unnamed sources reportedly claiming they were convinced it might be.” With “Fit to Print?” on screen, Gibson set up a second story on how the Times article “raised as many questions about the paper and what standards of proof it would need to publish such a story as it did about the Senator.” Reporter Dan Harris began: “Today, conservative talk radio hosts accused the New York Times of a supremely cynical slam job.”

Over on CBS, anchor Katie Couric relayed how McCain's “supporters and others are questioning the Times' journalism and motivations.” In the subsequent story, Tom Rosenstiel, of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, suggested: “So this is an odd situation where anonymous sources are not alleging something. They're alleging their feelings about something.” Reporter Nancy Cordes noted how “conservative commentators rushed to his defense. Even Rush Limbaugh took a break from bashing McCain to take on another favored target.”

Later, Bob Schieffer illustrated how out of touch he is with conservatives as he marveled at how “there were some people in the McCain campaign who actually winced when he was endorsed for the Republican nomination by the New York Times. They thought that would set off the Republican right, and, boy, did it ever. It looked like he would never find a way to get those people to warm to him.” But now, “look what happened today. Here's Rush Limbaugh coming to his defense, Laura Ingraham...”

NBC anchor Brian Williams led with the charges and how attention turned to the newspaper's agenda:

It's a story about a female lobbyist in Washington and her relationship, business and perhaps otherwise, with Senator John McCain. It's a story about influence, appearances and propriety. But as this day went on, it was about more than that. It was about the timing and sourcing of a negative story on page one of a very influential newspaper.

Kelly O'Donnell reported that “the Times found itself the target of criticism today. Rush Limbaugh, usually harsh on McCain, was now on his side.”

The Web video clips of Limbaugh played by each newscast:

ABC's World News: “The story is not the story. The story is that this paper endorsed McCain, sat on this story, and now puts it out just prior to McCain wrapping up the nomination.”
CBS Evening News: “The New York Times endorsed that candidate while they sat on this story, and now with utter predictability, they are trying to destroy him.”

NBC Nightly News: “The story is that this paper endorsed McCain, sat on this story, and now puts it out just prior to McCain wrapping up the nomination.”

The MRC's Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video to provide these highlights from the February 21 coverage on the ABC, CBS and NBC evening newscasts:

ABC's World News:

CHARLES GIBSON: Good evening. We begin tonight with politics, and another example of how difficult it is for a politician to prove a negative. John McCain began his day answering questions about a story in the New York Times alleging an improper relationship eight years ago with a female lobbyist. The story had no evidence the relationship was romantic -- only unnamed sources reportedly claiming they were convinced it might be. McCain and his advisors knew the story was coming. The candidate reacted with calm. His campaign reacted with fury. Here's our senior political correspondent Jake Tapper.

...

GIBSON: And as Jake mentioned, the New York Times story was the talk of the political world today and raised as many questions about the paper and what standards of proof it would need to publish such a story as it did about the Senator. Indeed, McCain's camp immediately tried to make the New York Times the issue, and not the story itself. Here's ABC's Dan Harris.

DAN HARRIS: Today, conservative talk radio hosts accused the New York Times of a supremely cynical slam job.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: The story is not the story. The story is that this paper endorsed McCain, sat on this story, and now puts it out just prior to McCain wrapping up the nomination.

HARRIS: The Times has been on the story since November, and the paper did endorse McCain in January, saying that he, quote, "demonstrated that he has the character to stand on principle." Today, however, the executive editor of the Times, Bill Keller, said in a statement, "We publish stories when they are ready. 'Ready' means the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction." According to this story, published today by the New Republic, staffers at the New York Times debated their McCain story intensely. There was a lot of fighting going on behind the scenes?

GABRIEL SHERMAN, The New Republic Magazine: Yeah, I mean, the reporters working on this piece felt passionately that they nailed it to their satisfaction. Bill Keller, the executive editor, felt that they couldn't just run with a piece that had a string of anecdotal evidence.

HARRIS: But many critics, and not just conservatives, say the Times did just that, basing their story on two anonymous former campaign associates who presented no proof of an affair, just concern about the possibility of an affair.

KEN AULETTA, The New Yorker Magazine: That's not proof that he was having an affair with her. And the New York Times, the greatest newspaper in the world, I believe, has to have a higher standard of proof.

HARRIS: The McCain campaign is dealing with this crisis by, quote, "going to war against the New York Times." Critics say the way the Times has handled this story has made McCain's strategy much more likely to succeed. Dan Harris, ABC News, New York.

CBS Evening News:
KATIE COURIC, in opening teaser: Tonight, John McCain versus the New York Times: The Senator denies the paper's suggestion he had an improper relationship with a lobbyist.

JOHN MCCAIN: I'm very disappointed in the article, and it's not true.

COURIC: Supporters accused the Times of a smear campaign.

...

KATIE COURIC: Good evening, everyone. John McCain was savoring what's become a cakewalk to the Republican presidential nomination when a bundle of morning newspapers came crashing down in his path. It was today's New York Times questioning his ethics. But McCain says the front-page story suggesting he had an improper relationship with a lobbyist is not true. And now his supporters and others are questioning the Times' journalism and motivations. Nancy Cordes is covering this still-developing story. Nancy?

...

NANCY CORDES: The head of the Project for Excellence in Journalism says the Gray Lady wandered into a gray area with this one.

TOM ROSENSTIEL, Project for Excellence in Journalism: So this is an odd situation where anonymous sources are not alleging something. They're alleging their feelings about something.

CORDES: New York Times executive editor Bill Keller turned down interview requests today saying in a statement, "We think the story speaks for itself. On the timing, our policy is we publish stories when they are ready." The article was in the works for months but only went to press, the McCain campaign argues, because the left-leaning magazine New Republic was working up its own story about internal debate at the Times over whether to print the sensitive allegations.
...

CORDES: McCain's opponents did their best to avoid the flap today-

MIKE HUCKABEE: I only know him what I know him to be, and that's a good and decent, honorable man.

CORDES: -as conservative commentators rushed to his defense. Even Rush Limbaugh took a break from bashing McCain to take on another favored target.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: The New York Times endorsed that candidate while they sat on this story, and now with utter predictability, they are trying to destroy him.

CORDES: And that's an argument the campaign is hoping it can ride all the way to the bank. Already, Katie, they've put out this fund-raising letter asking donors to help them combat the liberal establishment and the New York Times.

...

COURIC: And meanwhile, Bob, what about this New York Times story about John McCain? Do you think it has legs? And do you think it will trip him up?

BOB SCHIEFFER: I think it has legs, but the legs may be it may become about the New York Times and not about John McCain. You know, Katie, there were some people in the McCain campaign who actually winced when he was endorsed for the Republican nomination by the New York Times. They thought that would set off the Republican right, and, boy, did it ever. It looked like he would never find a way to get those people to warm to him. But look what happened today. Here's Rush Limbaugh coming to his defense, Laura Ingraham. The Christian Broadcasting Network said it is a badge of honor to be attacked by the New York Times. So maybe we're going to see some changes there, and the McCain campaign, as we just heard from Nancy, is trying to do everything they can to take advantage of it. They actually sent out fund-raising letters to conservatives today pointing out you got to help us beat back the liberal media and the New York Times.

COURIC: So now they'll bond over a common enemy.

NBC Nightly News:
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Good evening. When it hit the Internet last night and the front page of the New York Times this morning, it was the shot heard 'round the political world. It's a story about a female lobbyist in Washington and her relationship, business and perhaps otherwise, with Senator John McCain. It's a story about influence, appearances and propriety. But as this day went on, it was about more than that. It was about the timing and sourcing of a negative story on page one of a very influential newspaper. Importantly here, the parties involved strongly denied the story. The paper defends the story. And that's where we'll begin tonight, with NBC's Kelly O'Donnell, who covers the McCain campaign for us.

...

KELLY O'DONNELL: The Times found itself the target of criticism today. Rush Limbaugh, usually harsh on McCain, was now on his side.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: The story is that this paper endorsed McCain, sat on this story, and now puts it out just prior to McCain wrapping up the nomination.

O'DONNELL: The Times defended both its journalistic methods and the timing of its decision to publish the story. And, Brian, tonight campaign advisors are seeing an opening here. They're very eager to see the focus of attention shift to the newspaper. They've already sent out an e-mail to fund-raisers talking about the controversy about the story and reaction to it, trying to get more support for John McCain.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center