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McCain vs Keller of the New York Times

Q: The initial story in the New York Times centering upon John McCain’s purported affair with…

A: Wait, wait, wait. Let’s get it right. The affair was more than purported. It was reported in the Times, however obliquely. And that was the center of the story. All the other “news” in the story, most of it rehashed, was clustered around that volcanic charge. The Times was widely understood as asserting that there was an affair, and all the other reports and insinuations and gossip that followed that story was grounded in the certainty that McCain had an affair.

Q: Okay, I got that. And you’re asserting that there was no affair.

A: No, I’m not. But that’s the beauty of dirt: If you throw enough of it, some will stick – stick, not stain. McCain has denied an affair occurred, so has the woman. The editor of Newsweek, familiar with most of the details concerning the run-up to the story, says his journalistic rectitude would not have permitted him to run the story. The charge ventilated by the Times, serious enough to torpedo a presidential campaign, was made by anonymous sources. Since the story has been challenged, no one else has come forward to assert there was an affair. I think at this point we should assume the story had no legs and then ask, that being the case, why was it printed? Massive goofs of this kind should not be put to bed without an intensive examination.

Q: And, as usual, you have your own theory.

A: I do. I put it forward only as a likely possibility. There are several reasons, all of them plausible.

Q: Shoot.

A: I think, as many others do, it was very odd that the paper endorsed the McCain candidacy while news reporters had this story in hand.

Q: Sure, but in most papers, there is an intentional disconnection between opinion and news.

A: True, but there is also a live connection, because the publisher signs off on editorials and he also may intervene with news room operations. I do not believe that the Executive Editor of the Times overseeing that story, Bill Keller [pictured above], did not share the story with the publisher. Ruining Republican presidential campaigns is becoming something of a tradition at the Times, so much so that some commentators have accused the paper of – gasp! – liberal activism. This is okay if the president is Richard Nixon and you have the goods on him. But the “goods” in this story – by which I mean the charge that McCain had an affair with the lobbyist mentioned -- were, in my humble opinion, bunk. The story was heavily padded with instances, some of them long since defused, purporting to show that McCain was in the pocket of lobbyists. And now that grave doubts have been cast upon the central assertion, the usual culprits are anxious to change the subject. But why move on if mistakes, very serious ones, have not been corrected? We still don’t know who killed cock robin – or why. My theory is that Keller permitted himself to be pressured into printing a story he knew was defective.

Q: By whom?

A: By the reporters who wrote the story, and perhaps his own liberal interior gyroscope. Keller came aboard the paper in the midst of a reportorial scandal. Led astray by unreliable sources, Judith Miller had written a series of stories for the Times on weapons of mass destruction that were later discredited. According to an extensive piece in New York magazine, it took Keller “ten months to even address the question of whether the paper needed to make amends for Judith Miller’s discredited stories on Iraq’s illusory weapons of mass destruction, which had been published under Raines [the editor Keller displaced]. By that time, it was clear that Miller had, at best, been led astray by unreliable sources and that there were serious problems with her reporting. At that point, Keller gathered his top lieutenants, including Managing Editor Jill Abramson, and asked them how far the paper ought to go in investigating those stories. The consensus that emerged was that the paper should not pursue an internal review on the scale of what had been done following Jayson Blair because it would be too damaging for a newsroom still recovering from that scandal. Keller, who was inclined to make recovery his top priority, agreed.” So, here we go again. Some people never learn.

Q: The story you’re referencing in New York magazine leads with an affair Keller had with his second wife, before he was married to her. Why wouldn’t his own experience raise a red flag in stories about marital infidelity?

A: That’s a good question. Keller apparently was happily married to another journalist when he met his soon to be new bride. Of course, no self respecting politician these days honors marital fidelity. Here in Connecticut, both US senators, Joe Lieberman and Chris Dodd, traded in their old brides for new models, a practice common in congress. But Keller had an affair, got the girl pregnant, divorced his wife and married his new flame who, according to the New York magazine profile, had been around the block a few times: “Her exes included Senator John Kerry and Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour.” Well, you know, if the French can do it -- French premiere Nicholas Sarkozy appears to be besotted with a similar lovely young thing – why not editors for the Times? Are we not cosmopolitans? Keller could not easily let the McCain story go by.

Q: Why not? He was simpatico.

A: Ah, poor thing, you do not understand the journalism business. One is not supposed to be directed in these matters by one’s own cherished – what to call them? – inclinations, ideals, prejudices. How many Catholic politicians in Connecticut support, just to fetch for an example, a ban on partial birth abortion? Not a one. If you are a journalist, you must not let your personal inclinations interfere with your job, which – here in the Northeast – requires you to kick against the mostly conservative pricks. Unconventionality has become the new convention. Keller, on my theory, could not have been sympathetic to McCain, accused of infidelity, without causing the noses of his reporters to curl up in disdain: Ah, you see! He doesn’t want us to go with the story because he has violated the prescriptions of his church. Keller is (guffaw here) a Catholic. Moreover, he cheated on his wife.

Q: Of course, you offer no proof in support of your theory. Aren’t you just as bad as Keller?

A: Right.


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