American Culture

Sen. McCain and sex? It only seemed like a good story

Perhaps the most disingenuous word a journalist can deploy is seemed. My newsroom godfather taught me that the use of seemed, seems or other forms of the word means the reporter is guessing, that the reporter has found no clear evidentiary link between Fact A and Fact B.

In its now highly ridiculed story about Sen. John McCain’s relationships with lobbyists, particularly with Vicki Iseman, The New York Times used seemed twice:

But the concerns about Mr. McCain’s relationship with Ms. Iseman underscored an enduring paradox of his post-Keating career. Even as he has vowed to hold himself to the highest ethical standards, his confidence in his own integrity has sometimes seemed to blind him to potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest. [6th graf]

One of his efforts, though, seemed self-contradictory. In 2001, he helped found the nonprofit Reform Institute to promote his cause and, in the process, his career. It collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in unlimited donations from companies that lobbied the Senate commerce committee. Mr. McCain initially said he saw no problems with the financing, but he severed his ties to the institute in 2005, complaining of “bad publicity” after news reports of the arrangement. [31st graf]

To seem means to be judged to be; to appear to be true, probable, or evident; or to appear to be something. As a transitive verb, seem is used to suggest uncertainty — not, as The Times failed to do, tie one set of facts to another set of facts and thus conclude with certainty we gotcha.

Two weeks ago, in a post about newsroom cuts planned at The Times, I wrote: “Despite its ills and errors, The New York Times remains the best newspaper in America.” I still think that.

But The Times‘ godawful performance in this story only adds to its critics’ list of “ills and errors.” And deservedly so.

The Times‘ public editor, Clark Hoyt, pointed out that most of more than 2,400 people who commented on the story at its Web site “were furious at The Times.”

Hoyt’s commentary quoted Marilyn Monaco of Philadelphia as saying the newspaper “has sunk below its standards and created a salacious distraction from an otherwise substantive campaign. And for the record, I am an Obama supporter.” And from Terry Bledsoe of Sun Lakes, Ariz.: “I am most disappointed in The New York Times for engaging in this sort of trash-the-candidate journalism.” A minority of respondents applauded the paper.

The story has been hashed and rehashed for its weaknesses. On CNN’s “Reliable Sources” Sunday morning, CNN special correspondent Frank Sesno tore apart The Times‘ use of anonymous sources. (To be fair, the bulk of the story did not come from anonymous sources. However, the misleading use of seemed is definitively linked to those sources.)

The two associates, who said they had become disillusioned with the senator, spoke independently of each other and provided details that were corroborated by others.

“Disillusioned?” About what? asked Sesno, who read from The Times‘ own policy on use of anonymous sources:

That’s the biggest problem I think with the original story. You’re tantalized with these anonymous sources. Halfway through the story you learn they’re disillusioned. I don’t know what they’re disillusioned about. Are they disillusioned about policy? Did they have a fight with John McCain? Did they have a score to settle with John McCain? Look, The New York Times‘ own policy on anonymous sources says the following: We resist granting anonymity except as a last resort to obtain information that we believe to be newsworthy and reliable. The information should be of compelling interest, unobtainable by other means. We resist granting anonymity for opinion, speculation or personal attacks.

Said public editor Hoyt:

The article was notable for what it did not say: It did not say what convinced the advisers that there was a romance. It did not make clear what McCain was admitting when he acknowledged behaving inappropriately — an affair or just an association with a lobbyist that could look bad. And it did not say whether Weaver, the only on-the-record source, believed there was a romance. The Times did not offer independent proof, like the text messages between Detroit’s mayor and a female aide that The Detroit Free Press disclosed recently, or the photograph of Donna Rice sitting on Gary Hart’s lap. [emphasis added]

But all the focus on the seemingly seaminess of The Times‘ story by pundits misses a few points. The Times shot itself in masthead because:

• The McCain story unnecessarily soiled The Times‘ reputation by resorting to abuse of its own policy on anonymous sources.

• The Times provided clues, which it did not fully explore, that are likely to provide other news organizations entry to sources about John McCain’s relationships with lobbyists those news organizations might not have had.

• The Times demonstrated it will resort to loosely sourced front-page puffery akin to that published in its own city by the tabloids it often derides.

• It showed that cutbacks in The Times‘ reporting ranks have had a deleterious effect on the paper’s ability to get it right. Is this story on allegations nearly a decade old the best four reporters and two researchers could do given their months of work on it?

Said its public editor:

… what [Sen. McCain’s] aides believed might not have been the real truth. And if you cannot provide readers with some independent evidence, I think it is wrong to report the suppositions or concerns of anonymous aides about whether the boss is getting into the wrong bed. [emphasis added]

Should The Times have dug into Sen. McCain’s relationships with lobbyists? Absolutely. Anyone running for federal office, let alone for president of the republic, ought to have closely examined his or her relationships with those who seek government influence and intervention for the benefit of their own special interests.

But The Times‘ naivete is apparent. It lost sight of the real issue with its wink-wink story about a seemingly sexual relationship between Sen. McCain and Ms. Iseman.

Sex in the power town that is Washington, D.C., has become merely a byproduct of influence peddling and selling, not the reward. Politicians want campaign cash far more than sex.

The Times didn’t do what rookie reporters are taught everywhere. It did not follow the money in full, compelling, well-sourced evidentiary detail. If it wants to demonstrate influence was bought and sold, then it should give its readers more than a poorly told version of a tawdry Harlequin romance.

9 replies »

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  2. Denny,

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the idea that editorial interference might’ve declawed the story and reduced an “is” to a “seemed.” Maybe the real story is out there, and someone higher-up than the reporters decided the salacious sex angle was the way to go.

    Just as there may be more (or less) to the story itself, there may be more or less to the story behind the story.

  3. Martin,

    Excellent point. Another post for another time, given I’ve larded up this one quite a bit. But you’re right. Even The Times’ public editor didn’t approach that angle well. Thanks for your comment.

  4. Dr. Denny,

    I think the NYT Times knew exactly they were doing with that hit piece. Now, every reporter in the country will be digging on McCain’s relationship with lobbyists(not that the digging is a bad thing). It might give them something juicy to report on later, after others do their leg work. Meanwhile, it will make them take their eye off the ball on some things that Obama and Hillary have in their closets. If you follow the money, looking at the Democratic candidates sources might cause some embarrassing discoveries.

    Jeff

  5. Jeff: I’m not worried about anybody taking their off what might be in Hillary’s closet. I doubt there has ever been a more investigated candidate in the history of American politics.

    Denny: These are, of course, The Rules, and you do them justice. However, as I’ve noted before, it’s good to be aware of when the rules serve you and when they don’t. A wise man once said:

    “Some people will say that words like “scum” and “rotten” are wrong for Objective Journalism – which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

    I’ll leave it to you to guess the identity of that roguish journalist….

  6. Jeff,

    I agree with Sam regarding Sen. Clinton for the most part. But, since she began her campaign for president, she’s raised gazillions of dollars. That’s lots of room for horse-trading that needs vetting. Sen. Obama, on the other hand, is an under-examined candidate. If The Times doesn’t dig into his record and life to the extent that it has Sen. McCain’s, I’ll roast it again.

    And, Sam, I can picture Hunter rolling over in his grave, .45 in hand.

    Thanks to you both for your comments.

  7. “If The Times doesn’t dig into his record and life to the extent that it has Sen. McCain’s, I’ll roast it again.”

    I’m fine with it too, as long as they don’t make shit up and keep “accidentally” calling him Osama.

    Oh wait, this is the NYT you’re talking about, not TV networks. My apologies.

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