Times Hit Piece Dying on Media Vine

The fallout continues from yesterday's New York Times hit piece on John McCain. The paper itself doesn't seem eager to put up a fight as network news broadcasts, liberal bloggers, journalism professors, and the general public are questioning the Times's journalistic standards.

Yesterday's inflammatory story, which used anonymous sources to forward nine-year-old allegations from his first presidential run suggesting an improper relationship by John McCain with a female telecommunications lobbyist, received prominent front-page placement; today's follow-up on McCain's press conference was relegated to page 20 -- Elisabeth Bumiller's "McCain Disputes That Aides Warned Him About Ties to Lobbyist."

Slate's "Today's Papers" columnist Daniel Politi questioned the placement. (Yesterday he questioned the "surprising" thinness of the original story.)

From Bumiller's piece:

Senator John McCain on Thursday disputed an account in The New York Times that top advisers confronted him during his first presidential run with concerns about his ties to a female lobbyist. [...]

Later in the day, one of Mr. McCain's senior advisers directed strong criticism at The Times in what appeared to be a deliberate campaign strategy to wage a war with the newspaper. Mr. McCain is deeply distrusted by conservatives on several issues, not least because of his rapport with the news media, but he could find common ground with them in attacking a newspaper that many conservatives revile as a left-wing publication.

"It was something that you would see in The National Enquirer, not in The New York Times," said Steve Schmidt, a former counselor to Vice President Dick Cheney who is now a top campaign adviser to Mr. McCain.

Mr. Schmidt, in lengthy comments to reporters traveling on Mr. McCain's campaign plane, said The Times had rushed the article into print so it could beat The New Republic in the publication of an article about the story behind The Times's investigation of Mr. McCain. The Times article was first published on its Web site on Wednesday night; The New Republic posted its account of what it described as staff conflict over the Times article, on its Web site on Thursday afternoon.

Below is a round up of reactions.

National Public Radio quoted Media Research Center president Brent Bozell and Times Executive Editor Bill Keller:

Conservative media critic Brent Bozell took a shot on the Fox News Channel, by saying that The New York Times is giving the National Enquirer a bad name.

Some non-ideological critics focused on the failure to prove the affair, or the favoritism.

Keller says that misses the point.

"I think the story that emerged is actually bigger, and more important and maybe more subtle," he says. "There's not a big market for subtle these days but I think it's an important story."

Keller says people should judge his paper's reporting as journalism, not as part of any political campaign.

All the networks led with the story, but did feature criticism of the Times's standards. MRC's Brent Baker summarized:

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.

Ben Smith at The Politico rounded up the surprisingly critical response of the left-wing blogosphere:

Greg Sargent, at TPM's Horse's Mouth, writes that the Times doesn't "have the goods" and "shouldn't have gone there." Matthew Yglesias accuses the Times of "shameful" dealings in "innuendo," though he's interested in the sex-free, lobbying aspects of the story. Big Tent Democrat at TalkLeft calls it "troubling" and bad for Democrats . Kevin Drum writes of the Times that "there's no way that they 'nailed' anything."

At the Washington Post, media reporter Howard Kurtz talked to Times Executive Editor Bill Keller, who accused McCain's advisers of trying to "rally the base" against the Times. (And it's working, as even conservative critics of McCain have united behind him and against the Times' liberal bias.)

Bill Keller, the paper's executive editor, dismissed a cascade of attacks yesterday accusing the Times of politically motivated sensationalism. "They're trying to change the subject to us," Keller said in an interview. McCain's advisers, he said, are attempting "to use the New York Times as an opportunity to rally the base."

Critics were hurling conflicting charges yesterday. Some said the story was unsubstantiated and should not have been published. Others complained that the Times should have run it sooner, so that voters in the early Republican primaries could have weighed the allegations. Those critics accused Keller of sitting on the story until McCain had time to secure the Republican nomination.

Keller denied deliberately delaying the story, saying that would have put him in the position of withholding important information from voters. "You can't let the electoral calendar govern your judgment about when to publish stories," he said

Jonathan Martin and Mike Allen have a lead story up at The Politico on how the McCain camp is actually spinning the story as a positive:

Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign claimed vindication Thursday night after a sophisticated 24-hour counterattack turned a potentially lethal story in The New York Times into a conservative call to arms.

How vindicated? McCain is actually raising money off the Times's story, selling McCain as a conservative Republican being attacked by the Times and pointing out the Times' embarrassment over a deep discount granted to the far-left group MoveOn.org smearing General Petraeus.

Update 13:06 | Matthew Sheffield. Even the Times's readers don't seem interested in this story. When you look at their "most emailed" stories of the day, the McCain hit piece doesn't even crack the top ten.

Update 13:57 | Matthew Sheffield. Jay Rosen, a well-known journalism professor at New York University soundly condemned the Times's editorial judgment yesterday (endorsing McCain and yet unveiling this) provoking outraged responses from Grey Lady employees. But he wasn't having any of it (h/t PJ Gladnick):

Two people who work for the New York Times wrote to me with the same complaint: why was I raising questions about the editorial page's endorsement of John McCain on Jan. 25 when I know--or should as a J-professor know--that the newsroom and the editorial page operate independently of each other and do not coordinate?

My answer: there's one person who would have known about the paper's struggles with McCain and his lawyers over today's story, and who read and approved the paper's endorsements-- or should have. That is Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., the publisher.

And so to ask, "How does the Times endorse McCain with a story like that looming, if it believes in the story?" is to ask, at a minimum, what Arthur thought he was doing. But it's more than that. Staffers who live the logic of their internal organization and its brilliant divides sometimes fail to see what the institution as a whole is saying. The Times endorsed a man it had reason to believe would face front page scrutiny like we saw today from the news section of the Times. It is not unreasonable to ask why. The two sides don't need to coordinate if both read Drudge.

Clay Waters
Clay Waters was director of Times Watch, a former project of the Media Research Center . Read more: http://archive.newsbusters.org/bios/clay-waters.html#ixzz3CdgxLFgQ