"The New York Times is not a supermarket tabloid," boasted their Washington Bureau Chief R.W. Apple when Gennifer Flowers first declared in 1992 that she and Gov. Bill Clinton had an affair. Even then, the line sounded laughable.
One year before, then-Times reporter Maureen Dowd penned a 2,400-word front-page stink bomb passing along discredited gossip author Kitty Kelley's unproven charges of something apparently too glorious to fact-check: an alleged long-time affair between Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra, including private "luncheons" that went on all afternoon at the White House.
Almost 17 years later, The New York Times is still displaying a transparently partisan approach when dealing with anonymous adultery allegations. A four-reporter investigative team assembled a 3,000-word piece for Page One on Sen. John McCain and his relationship with a telecommunications lobbyist named Vicki Iseman. Unnamed former aides suggested they suspected a possible "romantic" relationship and sought to keep Iseman out of McCain's sphere of influence. Both parties in this alleged affair denied it, and before a national audience on NPR, Times editor Bill Keller all but admitted his paper had no evidence. Zilch.
But they ran with it.
The mystique of The New York Times remains so great in the media establishment that within hours, the network morning shows all rumbled forward with furrowed brows chanting it was a crisis for McCain.
CBS morning host Harry Smith found a bombshell hedged with a may-have: "This bombshell report that Republican front-runner John McCain may have had a romantic relationship with a lobbyist who was a visitor to his office and traveled with him on a client's corporate jet." On ABC, former Clinton-sex-denier George Stephanopoulos laughably claimed this could be an earthquake. On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being fatal, George guessed this flimsy slime bubble was a "six or a seven ... a damaging story, there's no doubt about that." On NBC, Tim Russert said the story would "play out today in a very big way."
By the time the evening newscasts rolled around, cooler heads had prevailed, and suddenly ABC and CBS at least were quoting liberal media ethicists saying the Times didn't have enough proof of "romance" to publish those incendiary allegations. From there, a new elite consensus hardened: The Times had royally screwed up.