Was New York Times right to publish John McCain affair story?

Did the New York Times – whose slogan is All the News That’s Fit to Print – err when it ran a front page story suggesting that the number one contender for the Republican Party nomination for the Presidency Senator John McCain once had an affair with a woman lobbyist in Washington about half his age.

The story offered no specifics, no direct accusations, just hints that the 71 year-old senator – who spent six years in a Hanoi prison during the Vietnam War – may have been ‘romantically involved’ about eight years ago with Vicki Iseman, an attractive blond lobbyist .

The story – without quoting names – said some of his staff became concerned because many of Ms Iseman’s clients did business with the US Government. The story suggested the staff was so concerned they advised the Senator not to see her any more – and that she should stay away from the Senator.

The story caused a furore and even took attention – at least for the moment – away from the battle between Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barack Obama, who are running neck and neck for the rival Democratic Party nomination.

The question most being asked is whether The NY Times – which earlier had endorsed Senator McCain for the Republican nomination – had deliberately turned on the senator or whether the paper had a lapse of judgement.

In fact the NY Times had been working on the story for at least three months and claims it was satisfied it met its usual ‘high standards’before running it. Several reporters – many of them veteran journalists – were involved in the story.

Most of them were convinced of the authenticity of the story, but could not at first persuade Times’ executive editor Bill Keller. He felt the story lacked ‘documentary proof”. In fact at one stage one of the investigators quit the team, supposedly in frustration.

Then hints of the story began appearing on American websites, notably The Drudge Report. There were reports that Senator McCain and his team had pleaded with The Times not to run the story – and had even hired a lawyer to ‘protect his name and reputation”.

Then came reports that The New Republic, a leading political publication in the US, was working on a story about The New York Times and the McCain investigation. According to the New Republic The Times staff several times redrafted the story.

Did this provoke the NY Times to go ahead and rush the story into print? Not according to its editor, who insisted: ‘Our policy is to 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.”

Nevertheless there are still some executives at The Times who are reportedly not happy over the story. Other journalists agree that it was too full of innuendo and few facts. Time magazine’s managing editor Rick Stengel said that he would never have run the piece.

Senator McCain has denied the story, insisted he was never involved with anyone, and denies any impropriety both personal and political. But the question remains: Will the story affect the senator’s campaign for the presidency? And, perhaps as importantly, the reputation of The New York Times?

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