"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.
In several ways, it echoed another media scandal: Dan Rather and Mary Mapes using phony memos to try to convict President Bush of draft dodging in the fall of 2004. Because the source was CBS, the other media heavyweights all ran willy-nilly with the story without stopping to investigate and then discovered the story's flaws after they'd all used screaming sirens to get the public's attention.
Like Rather and Mapes, New York Times executive editor Bill Keller tried to blame McCain and conservatives for trying to change the subject to shoddy journalism instead of McCain's alleged romances. Keller found it outrageous that the McCain campaign would turn the question back around to the accusing conduct of the Times, as if the natural assumption in every case is the politician is always guilty and the media outlet is always angelic.
Keller also enlisted for his defense one Jack Shafer, a media critic for the liberal Web site Slate, who put his conscience in a dumpster and declared that the Times didn't have to prove a sexual relationship to allege one: "The Times doesn't have to produce photographic evidence of the hot dog meeting the bun to cast suspicion upon the McCain-Iseman intimacies," he claimed. Remember ABC's Brian Ross suggesting to Mapes, "Don't you have to prove (the documents) are authentic?" She insisted that was what CBS-bashing critics would suggest, but said, "No, I don't think that's the standard."
This was the desperate spin that the Keller camp tried to spread: This was a very serious story on McCain's personal behavior not matching his moralizing rhetoric on campaign finance reform and influence-peddling, so don't let the "romance" paragraphs get in the way. "I think the story that emerged is actually bigger and more important and maybe more subtle. There's not a big market for subtle these days," Keller oozed on NPR.
What nonsense. Would the media have jumped on this story without the Times shamelessly adding a porn soundtrack underneath? Sex sells. Sex was the story.
The most hypocritical thing Keller & Co. are doing here is smearing McCain with the idea that they are upholding political ethics. This is an unethical newspaper. It follows its own partisan agenda into all kinds of reckless journalism. When it's not endangering the public by exposing our national secrets and ruining intelligence-gathering, it's trying to sabotage a presidential campaign. They are not a national treasure or even a national resource. They are a national disgrace.