Thursday, February 21, 2008

CJR offers five questions for New York Times editor

In the wake of the explosive publication of an article which hints that Sen. John McCain had an affair with a lobbyist, Columbia Journalism Review reporter Megan Garber offers five questions for New York Times editor Bill Keller:

Ironically—but entirely expectedly, given the increasingly heated discourse of the campaign trail—the Times story’s questioning of McCain’s ethics has brought out critics who question the paper’s own standards. This is a tough one. We at CJR have an implicit bias toward information, and generally applaud any efforts to share new information with the public. But “For McCain,” by necessity, takes on two very tricky areas—the nature of a relationship and the nature of a quid pro quo—and, at points, walks the line between information and inference.

The questions in the article offer much to think about.
Another Columbia Journalism Review article
notes that the Times article did bring up some strong points about McCain's relations (of the non-romantic variety) with the lobbyist:

let’s look at the facts about political influence in the story, the information presented about McCain’s Commerce Committee work on issues of interest to Iseman’s clients:

* He wrote letters to the FCC asking them to rule in a way that would allow a company to own two television stations “in the same city, a crucial issue for Glencairn Ltd., one of Ms. Iseman’s clients.”

* He favored a minority-ownership tax incentive program. Iseman had several clients who favored that step.

* He twice tried to “advance” legislation permitting companies to own stations in overlapping markets. This issue “was important” to Iseman’s client Paxson Communications (now Ion Media Networks).

* In late 1999, Iseman asked McCain’s staff to intervene with the FCC on behalf of Paxson. McCain agreed, and he sent two letters to the FCC.

Look at the first three. Two concern loosening ownership laws, a step that, while controversial to some, is fully consistent with McCain’s deregulatory ken. It’s also not clear if Iseman’s lobbied McCain on those issues, and her clients are far from the only ones who would have been aided by those actions. Parse the Times’ phrasing, and you’ll see what I mean.

The tax program can’t be explained as deregulatory, but the best the Times can do is say that “several business” represented by Iseman favored such a program. And so, presumably, would many others. So where’s the evidence this had anything to do with her?

But the last bullet is quite something: the letters helping Paxson Communications are the only solid suggestion of an Iseman-McCain quid pro quo. And to my mind, that makes this as much of scandal of influence as a scandal of sex.

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