The New York Times "scoop" strongly suggesting a romantic relationship between John McCain and a lobbyist drew heavy coverage from all three morning shows Thursday. All three featured interviews with McCain staff members on the defensive. Critical scrutiny of the Times story was mostly left to the McCain aides, as the networks presented the tone of a real crisis for McCain, not for the newspaper.
On NBC’s Today, at least its opening allowed the idea that an outrage had taken place: "Good morning, bombshell or hatchet job? A New York Times report out this morning raises questions about John McCain's relationship with a female lobbyist eight years ago. He is outraged and he is fighting back. Will it turn the presidential campaign upside down?"
Norah O’Donnell’s news report calmly explained the Times narrative: "The report centers on McCain's ties to a lobbyist, 40-year-old Vicki Iseman and suggests a romantic relationship and that McCain may have used influence to benefit her clients. McCain denies any romance and says he did not intervene to help the lobbyist. The Times story has been in the works for months and McCain talked about it in December."
NBC political director Chuck Todd cast it as a serious challenge for the putative GOP nominee: "For McCain it's what happens Day Two with this story. How does he handle it, number one and number two, is there more?"
O’Donnell added: "And managing this story and how it might affect the campaign is certainly on the minds of top advisers. They say they expect it to be talked about very heavily for a day or two and then they hope to move on. They also say that for some of McCain's supporters, perhaps conservatives who do not like the mainstream media and the New York Times, it might even possible that if it's perceived that McCain has somehow been unfairly treated it might actually benefit the Senator. But it's too soon to say just how all of this will be measured by voters and by the campaign."
Matt Lauer interviewed "powerhouse lawyer" Bob Bennett – just days after the two of them did an interview suggesting Bill Clinton was still wronged by Paula Jones and "Clinton haters" – and Bennett was allowed to suggest the story was the "hatchet job" the NBC opening suggested.
But Lauer, who told Hillary Clinton at first blush of the Lewinsky story it could be the smear of the century, just suggested that even if the Times "romantic relationship" is unproven, it still could be a damaging story to McCain’s "straight talk" image: "He says there was no romantic relationship, that no favors were granted. You reiterate that. But even if this was just a close friendship, a typically close friendship, does a close friendship with a Washington lobbyist fly in the face of what John McCain has stood for over these past several years, the Straight Talk Express and an independence from special interest groups in Washington? "
In his follow-up segment, NBC Washington Bureau Chief Tim Russert echoed Chuck Todd (or maybe Chuck Todd was echoing the boss), that it was time for wait-and-see, not a time for questioning the Times. The screen shot wasn’t Bombshell or Hatchet Job, it was "McCain Under Fire, How Will Report Impact Race?"
Meredith Vieira asked: "We just heard Mr. Bennett say that this is a hatchet job, that there's no beef here. Is there anything in this article that could possibly derail the McCain campaign?
Russert replied: "Well there's a lot of smoke and we have to wait for the reaction, I think, from several different groups. One, what will conservative activists, particularly talk show radio hosts say about this today? Will they focus on the New York Times as the liberal, mainstream media? Or will they be concerned about Senator McCain and this allegation in violation of traditional family values? Secondly what will his opponents do, Meredith? Mike Huckabee, who has stayed in the race, what will he say about this race? Mitt Romney, who withdrew from the race and endorsed John McCain and asked his delegates to support Senator McCain, what will his delegates do? And thirdly the Democrats, Meredith. They'll mostly be quiet but will they see it as an opportunity to neutralize John McCain on his criticisms of their ethics or public financing issues and try to return fire on these alleged ethical lapses by Senator McCain."
Then Vieira asked if it would unite conservatives: "You know one of McCain's advisers suggest that it could help the Senator with the Republican base. He says, "Nothing unites conservatives like the New York Times."
In his answer Russert briefly turned to the Times, but not about what they left in, but what they left out: "He very well may be right. And I expect that we're gonna hear a lot of that from talk radio today. Kind of a galvanizing, unifying factor saying ‘If the New York Times is out to get the potential nominee of our party that's a pretty good sign that he has the credentials we want.’ But to the point Chuck Todd raised in the earlier piece. The question other journalists will be asking is, what's here? Why did the Times decide to print now? Is there anything else that they were suggesting that has been left out? We anxiously await to hear from Senator McCain at nine o'clock this morning to see how he will react, both substantively and politically. So this story will play out today in a very big way. And we have to wait to hear from the conservative activists, the opponents and the Democratic Party presidential candidates as well."
Remember that in NBC’s case, they spent a long time investigating the Juanita Broaddrick story in 1999 after Lisa Myers interviewed her about her rape charge against Bill Clinton. The delay in the timing of that story was obviously political, in that NBC sat on the story for weeks until the danger of impeachment was eliminated in the Senate, and then let the exclusive slip away to newspapers (The Wall Street Journal editorial page, and then the Washington Post). NBC anchor Tom Brokaw never aired a Broaddrick story on the Nightly News.
But when it comes to John McCain, it’s a full-crisis flooding of the zone which will "play out today in a very big way."
ABC’s Good Morning America also allowed questioning of the Times, but left it mostly to the opening: "This morning, breaking news. The New York Times raises questions about John McCain's relationship with a female lobbyist. Scandal or smear campaign? McCain responds this morning."
This raises the question for the media: if it’s a smear, don’t professional journalists hold the story and investigate for themselves before leaping onto it?
Co-host Diane Sawyer jumped in: "But we want to begin with breaking news overnight in the race to '08. Of course, the New York Times reporting that Senator McCain's top advisers allegedly believed his relationship with a female lobbyist had become personal and allegedly took steps to put an end to it. Jake Tapper's gonna take us through the details."
Tapper suggested it was a nightmare for the candidate, not the image of the Times: "Good morning, Diane. Well, it's exactly the last kind of story a presidential candidate wants on the front page of major newspapers, let alone a candidate who prides himself on ethics, integrity and standing up to special interests. The New York Times and a follow-up story in the Washington Post alleged that top aides to the senator were concerned about his closeness to a female lobbyist. It's a story that John McCain vehemently denies...The story details how eight years ago, unnamed aides were concerned about McCain's friendship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman. Quote, "Convinced the relationship had become romantic," the New York Times writes, "some of his top advisors intervened to protect the candidate from himself. Instructing staff members to block the woman's access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him." Both McCain and Iseman denied any inappropriate relationship."
Tapper ran McCain’s rebuttals, but concluded: "McCain's image as a man of integrity risks being tarnished....Conservative pundits seem to be rallying to McCain's defense, going after the media for the timing of the story. McCain may have finally found a story to get conservative pundits on his side."
This is where leaving the criticism of the Times of the candidate is a dodge. Instead of questioning the newspaper, ABC leaves (at least to some minds) the impression that conservatives will rally around a man once his reputation for integrity is ruined – as if they hate integrity? Tapper leaves out the idea that conservatives would believe the Times is unjustly smearing McCain and Iseman in that concluding formulation. What about this tarnishing the integrity of the newspaper?
Co-host Robin Roberts interviewed McCain adviser Charlie Black, who said "This doesn't meet the journalistic standards of a third-rate tabloid. And it's a shame that they have stooped to that."
Roberts replied: "And they have endorsed though you-- I understand what you're saying about the New York Times, but they did indeed endorse Senator McCain." She didn’t see that as showing the Times to be calculating hypocrites, but as a defense of the Times. Black hit back: "Well, it is interesting that they've been working on this gossipy story for several months and at the same time they endorsed him."
Roberts complimented McCain’s integrity, and then suggested the ethical burden for him is much higher than average politician: "Because he is a man of honor and distinction, even the appearance, would he want to do anything to even give the appearance of any impropriety? And because there were numerous reports of his contact with Ms. Iseman, of being in her clients-- using her corporate planes, the thought is that he would want to distance himself from anything that would give even the appearance of impropriety."
Black repeatedly described the Times as a liberal newspaper, concluding: "Senator McCain's integrity is intact. They don't have anything in there that proves otherwise, or even seriously alleges otherwise, so we want to make sure people understand the New York Times, the largest liberal newspaper is challenging the integrity with a false smear of the new conservative Republican nominee for president."
Then ABC turned to its expert on sex scandals, former Clinton spin control artist George Stephanopoulos. The real stand-out moment came at the beginning:
SAWYER: So, George, on the scandal Richter scale, one to ten, what does-- Where does this rank?
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: Somewhere between a six and seven, Diane. I think it's a damaging story, there's no question about that.
A six or a seven? Even if the Times has nothing approaching real evidence of a "romantic relationship"? Any conservative allowed on the set would have asked him how he would rate the old Clinton scandals by comparison. In his old days, Stephanopoulos would have said the Gennifer Flowers story was a minus-one, Paula Jones was a zero. But the Iseman story is a six or seven?
Stephanopoulos said "it's not going to derail John McCain's nomination, assuming three conditions hold. Number one, that Ms. Iseman continues to deny any inappropriate relationship with Senator McCain. Number two, that no one can prove that special favors were given to Ms. Iseman. And then number three, and perhaps the most important, the New York Times quotes two anonymous sources who said they warned Senator McCain about this relationship and he conceded, admitted to them there was an inappropriate relationship. As long as those sources remain anonymous, they don't come forward publicly and challenge Senator McCain, I think that this story is survivable, even though it's damaging."
Then Sawyer turned it to the Times, and whether McCain would sue (which no public figure who knows libel law would consider):
SAWYER: Let me ask you about Mr. Black saying, oh, half a dozen times at least: The liberal New York Times, liberal New York Times. Is this going to rally the conservatives that have been a problem for Senator McCain? And he said there would be no liable suit, or certainly implied that. Short of that, what will they do with the New York Times?
STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, there's not going to be a libel suit. You can't win a libel suit when you're a public figure like Senator McCain against the New York Times. But I've been talking to McCain strategists. They are going to go after the New York Times, in the words of one strategist, with extreme aggression. If they are going to act like a partisan in this race, says this advisor, we're going to treat them like partisans in this race, and I do think, Diane, that has the potential to rally conservatives who have been very critical of Senator McCain. We already saw Sean Hannity last night going after the New York Times. It's going to be interesting to see what Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham to say. And one of the questions that's going to come up is the timing of this article. Listen, had this article come out before New Hampshire or before Florida, it could have knocked McCain out of the race. It could have blocked his path to the nomination. But one of the things conservatives are going to say is, "Oh, wait a second, the Times comes out with the story only after McCain has already secured the nomination." So, I think that's a big story line going forward, certainly by the McCain campaign perhaps by other conservatives.
For the record, Ingraham and Limbaugh on Thursday sounded a different first note than trashing the Times. Both hosts yesterday suggested that McCain should learn something from this, that his alleged friends in the media aren’t his friends, that the moment he threatened their liberal goals, they would trash him. Ingraham compared him to Timothy Treadwell, the naturalist who tried to live with wild bears, until one killed him.
David Muir summarized the story (and ABC’s take on it) in the 8 am newscast:
In the news this morning, John McCain is on the defensive as the New York Times reports allegations he may have had an inappropriate relationship with a female lobbyist during his run for president back in 2000. Sources tell the Times, McCain's top advisers were so convinced the friendship with Vicki Iseman had turned romantic that they tried to intervene to protect him. This morning on GMA, McCain's campaign dismissed the report in what it called the liberal New York Times.
Let's recall how ABC News covered Juanita Broaddrick's rape allegation against Bill Clinton in 1999: nothing on World News Tonight, nothing on Nightline, and on Good Morning America, a brief mention from Charles Gibson on February 19, after the Wall Street Journal published an interview with Broaddrick on its editorial page, which Gibson insisted was a strange place for it. (It was, but Gibson may have been winking to viewers that the editorial page is a right-wing mud hut inside the otherwise laudable newspaper.) and two questions to Clinton flack Paul Begala on March 1."Paul, this stuff doesn't go away. There's now a charge of sexual assault against the President, 20 years ago when he was Attorney General in Arkansas. Does he need to answer those charges directly?"
Obviously, with networks like these, he never did need to address the rape charge directly.