Posted: Feb 22, 2008 10:34 AM

At about 8 PM Wednesday night, the New York Times posted what was supposed to be a blockbuster article about Sen. John McCain and his dealings with a female lobbyist.

I read the piece on line and - having exhausted my lips by getting through all 3,000 words - I thought, "That's it?"

The next morning, when I saw the print edition, I realized the New York Times had put this article (which was nothing more than coffee-machine gossip, inference, speculation, and conjecture) on its front page.

It was written in such a way as to lead a reader into believing that Sen. John McCain had a sexual relationship with a lobbyist for a number of communications clients and did political favors for her in return.

One minor quibble: The New York Times had exactly zero evidence of any wrong-doing on the part of Senator McCain. None. Nada. Bupkis.

The way this game is played in Washington (and elsewhere) is the other 1,375 news organizations spent the day rehashing the story but, as of this writing none of them had moved the story ahead by so much as a semicolon.

In short, the Times had a half dozen reporters and editors trying to pin the story down for many months. The best they could do was to find someone in the McCain camp who had admitted to having to tell the lobbyist to back off because it might look bad.

A couple of things: First, lobbyists get paid for access. If a lobbyist can report to his or her boss (or client, or both) that he or she was with the Senator at this event, or was with the Congressman at that event then the lobbyists gets style points.

Further, lobbying is actually an activity protected by the Constitution. The First Amendment reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Lobbyists are professional redressers.

Nevertheless, it has not been unknown in Washington for a lobbyist to get too cozy with the staff or the boss and someone like, oh just for the sake of argument say, me might have to take them aside - male or female - and tell them that they needed to find a new hobby because they were becoming a pain.


This particular lobbyist dealt with clients in the communications industry. The article points out that McCain (then chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee which has sway over communications issues) wrote a letter to the FCC at the urging of the lobbyist.

What the article did not point out was that the FCC had been diddling with whatever the issue was for some two years and all the letter did was ask the Commissioners to take a vote so the parties involved in the issue could move on.

The letter, according to the McCain folks, specifically noted that the Senator didn't care which way the vote came out, but urged them to do their jobs and deal with the issue as they saw fit.

Yikes! He did that? Now, that's some front page news.

The Times also dinged McCain for making use of a corporate jet belonging to one of the lobbyist's clients. A client who had also made a donation to one of McCain's campaigns.

News flash. You don't have to go back eight years to find that kind of activity; you only have to go back about five months. Until September of last year it was perfectly legal and within House and Senate rules to borrow a corporate jet and pay what commercial first class air fare would be for anyone travelling with the Congressman or Senator.

The rules now require that the plane be chartered at market rates, so you can see dozens - perhaps hundreds - of Members of Congress and Senators now standing in the TSA lines at Reagan National Airport on Friday afternoons as they have to fly commercial.

If the Times published a list of every Member of the House and Senate who flew on a jet owned by a corporation which had also donated to his or her campaign committee - whole forests would have to be sacrificed to supply enough paper.

The New York Times is a big company and its editors and executives will have to explain why they thought this story, undeveloped and unfair, needed to be in the paper.

My opinion was it was the journalistic equivalent of a blogger sitting in his basement feeding out rumors to the internet over his dial-up connection.