Carol Platt Liebau

For once, liberals and conservatives can agree on something: The New York Times acted shamefully in publishing a story in part suggesting that John McCain might have had an extramarital affair. The piece, laced with little more than rumor and innuendo, was obviously designed to strangle the McCain campaign in its cradle. As lefty blogger Greg Sargent put it, “The suggestion that the relationship might have been sexual, which is made at the top and towards the end of the story, basically amounts to an allegation that anonymous sources said there was concern that the relationship might have become romantic.” In other words, the report is a big bunch of nothing – a piece that “offered readers no proof” of any wrongful conduct, in the words of the Times’ own public editor.

But the damage inflicted by gossipy stories like this is real – not just to the reputation of a newspaper clearly riddled with partisanship, or the peace of mind of the families of John McCain and Vicki Iseman (both of whom have denied any improper relationship). The repercussions of such innuendo-filled and irresponsible reporting spread far beyond politics.

Every feminist – and every working woman in America – should be denouncing The New York Times for this reason: Whenever unsupported allegations like those spotlighted in the McCain hit piece come to national prominence, it becomes more difficult for young women to attain true equality in the workplace. What readers know is that Vicki Iseman worked successfully with John McCain. They spent some time together, shared some air flights. From this, unnamed staffers have speculated about the possibility of an affair – and the Times went ahead and published the speculation.

Clearly, had Vicki Iseman been a man (or even an older, less attractive woman), such speculation would never have existed, and certainly wouldn’t have been dignified with a lengthy page-one, four-reporter splash in the “paper of record.” Looking at the lack of evidence in the Times piece reporting unspecified (and unsubstantiated) “concerns” about an affair, who can blame senior male employees from concluding that such rumors can be the price of associating – even professionally – with an attractive, younger woman?

All across America, there are young women attempting to advance at work by being just as smart, just as prepared, and just as diligent as their male counterparts. But if the senior (most often male) employees they need to impress are hyper-sensitive about the reputational damage that can result from spending time with them, female workers going to be deprived of opportunities they need to showcase their talent. Young female associates at law firms aren’t going to have the chance to work with older, married male partners conducting important trials away from home – too risky to be staying in a hotel with a woman for that long. Junior businesswomen of all stripes may be deprived of their turns at closing deals with male senior executives, lest doing so elicit whispers. And the list goes on.

When Anita Hill launched her still-unproven assault on Clarence Thomas’ character seventeen years ago, men all over America discovered that their reputations could be threatened by a simple accusation from a woman, offered without even a scintilla of evidence (in fact, Justice Thomas’ character was trashed despite evidence that he had actually helped and mentored Hill). Now, it seems that their fidelity to their wives can be publicly questioned for nothing more than spending time in the company of an attractive, young professional woman.

Given the double standards of liberal feminists – who were willing to condemn Justice Thomas without evidence, yet refused to chastise President Bill Clinton for behavior that was both proven and infinitely worse – it’s unlikely that they’ll speak up in defense of a Republican like John McCain. But the next time that they deplore the existence of a “glass ceiling” in the workplace, they might want to consider the impact on young, professional women of the kind of unsubstantiated rumor-mongering so gleefully undertaken by The New York Times last week.


Carol Platt Liebau

Carol Platt Liebau is an attorney, political commentator and guest radio talk show host based near New York. Learn more about her new book, "Prude: How the Sex-Obsessed Culture Hurts Young Women (and America, Too!)" here.