Times story shows, yet again, that the national media should stop ripping off Walter Robinson

February 25th, 2008 → 10:17 am @ // 3 Comments

Some of you may have heard that the New York Times recently ran a piece about John McCain about how his, um, close relationship with Vicki Iseman, a female lobbyist, worried his 2000 campaign staff and raised questions about his judgment.

It was an odd little number for a whole mess of reasons, including (protestations to the contrary) that one of the main reasons the story ended up in the paper when it did was because Gabe Sherman of the New Republic was about to file his piece detailing the pissing matches concerning when (or whether) the Times’ many thousands of words would ultimately run.

Since then, there’s been a general consensus that without the implications/allegations of an affair with Iseman, it would have been a decent piece. That view is neatly summarized by Clark Hoyt, the Times’s public editor: “The pity of it is that, without the sex, The Times was on to a good story. McCain…recast himself as a crusader against special interests and the corrupting influence of money in politics. Yet he has continued to maintain complex relationships with lobbyists like Iseman…”*

Clark does acknowledge that much of this story has been written before, and at points, the Times made unspecific references to previous reporting.

From what I can tell, almost all of it had been previously written about, and the vast majority of that writing was done by Pulitzer winner Walter Robinson, current Northeastern U J-school professor/former investigative reporter for the Boston Globe, that little daily up in New England that the NYT Co. owns. A couple of the big differences between the pieces are that Robinson’s stories weren’t done with a team of other reporters and researchers; he didn’t get in trouble by invoking sex; and his piece didn’t get all of this attention.
To wit:

Boston Globe, “McCain Pressed FCC in Case Involving Major Contributor,” January 5, 2000: “McCain’s close ties to Paxson were abundantly clear on the key dates surrounding the FCC decision. The day before he sent he Dec. 10 letter, McCain used Paxson’s het for a trip from New York to Florida. The day after the letter, he took the company jet from Florida to Washington.

New York Times, “For McCain, Self Confidence on Ethics Poses its Own Risks,” February 21, 2008: “Like other lawmakers, [Mr. McCain] often flew on the corporate jets of business executives seeking his support, including the media moguls Rupert Murdoch, Michael R. Bloomberg, and Lowell W. Paxson.”

Globe: “It is a paradox that underlies McCain’s quest for the presidency. As he savages special interest from almost every podium, those interests, ever pragmatic, have lavished attention and donations on the powerful chairman of a committee that has vast reach of the rapidly evolving and often regulated commercial marketplace. If anything, many of the special interests are underwriting McCain’s campaign for president – and his rhetorical war against them.”

Times: “But the concerns about Mr. McCain’s relationship with Ms. Iseman underscored an enduring paradox of his post-Keating career. Even as he has vowed to hold himself to the highest ethical standards, his confidence in his own integrity has sometimes seemed to blind him to potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest.”

Globe: “McCain pressured the Federal Communications Commission to vote on an issue that cleared the way for a major contributor to his presidential campaign to buy a Pittsburgh television station. McCain, in his bluntly worded Dec. 10 letter to the FCC, did not urge a vote favoring the contributor, Paxson Communications. But he acted at the request of the company’s lobbyist, during a period when he used Paxson’s corporate jet four times to travel to campaign events – where he almost always attacks monied special interests. McCain’s intervention in the case drew a speedy, scolding response from William E. Kennard, the FCC chairman, who deemed the Senator’s letter “highly unusual” and suggested it was inappropriate. The House Commerce Committee, which McCain heads, oversees the FCC.”

Times: In late 1999, Ms. Iseman asked Mr. McCain’s staff to send a letter to the commission to help Paxson. … [Mr. McCain] sent two letters to the commission, drawing a rare rebuke for interference from its chairman. In an embarrassing turn for the campaign, news reports invoked the Keating scandal, once again raising questions about intervening for a patron.”

In an online chat last Friday, Robinson was asked about the stories’ similarities when a reader wrote, “Hi, Walter, I read that 2000 article you wrote and you really uncovered all the dirt. Are you mad that The New York Times pieces didn’t give you credit in their report?” Robinson, seemingly agreeing with Hoyt, responded, “Given the focus of the Times piece, which I think obscured the real issue, I’m not unhappy that the Globe was not mentioned.”

This isn’t the first time a national news organization has gotten in trouble re-reporting a story Robinson had already written about. The infamous Dan Rather-60 Minutes story on Bush’s National Guard service that ran in 2004—and ultimately led to Rather’s dismissal from the network—had, for the most part, been covered by Robinson in another series of 2000 stories. That February, Robinson uncovered a trove of military records which showed that Bush had “received credit for attending Air National Guard drills in the fall of 1972 and spring of 1973—a period when his commanders have said he did not appear for duty at bases in Montgomery, Ala., and Houston.”

Robinson also discovered that Ben Barnes, the speaker of the Texas House in 1968, had recently given a sworn deposition given as part of a civil lawsuit in which he said he had made calls to National Guard officials on behalf of Bush after a friend of Bush’s father asked Barnes for help. Robinson’s stories caused a small stir at the time—at one point, a group of Alabama Vietnam vets offered a reward for anyone who could vouch for Bush’s claim that he served in a Montgomery unit in 1972—but it wasn’t until four years later, when CBS aired unverified documents that purported to show the exact same thing, that the story really got any attention.

* Incidentally, I do think the Times story was worthwhile, and not because it highlighted the extent to which McCain’s post-Keating career has been less unspeckled than most think. On this point, I’ll defer to Slate’s Jack Shafer, who defended last week’s piece thusly: “The Times doesn’t have to produce photographic evidence of the hot dog meeting the bun to cast suspicion upon the McCain-Iseman intimacies. If McCain were as close to a male lobbyist as he is Iseman, I’d want the Times to report it.” Shafer also, incidentally, realizes that much else in the story wasn’t all that new: “Much of that story has been reported over the years, but it was still worth pulling together to help voters in 2008 better understand the John McCain who might be their next president…”


Post Categories: 2008 Presidential Campaign & Boston Globe & John McCain & New York Times & Walter Robinson

3 Comments → “Times story shows, yet again, that the national media should stop ripping off Walter Robinson”


  1. sharrock

    9 years ago

    Excellent comparison to the previous Globe pieces. It seems the Times did not know quite how to focus its story (too many cooks) so they made sure they had all the info they could muster in the story. Nothing shocking was revealed but McCain promptly painted himself into a corner with his strong denials. We’ll see how that works out for him.

    I do tend to think these types of stories that have some substance but not a wealth of facts or evidence or a damaging timeline get formulated different in the past as current news media seems obsessed in drawing readers away from the blogosphere. (On a side note, if CNN pushes blogs down my throat anymore I am going to impale myself.)

    As far as the sexual relationship, it sounds better for McCain if he was sleeping with her. I will not be voting for McCain but I’d rather think he used his influence because he was getting some love from a woman 25 years his younger rather than he gives special consideration (and potentially questionable memos) to any and all lobbyists.

    Reply

  2. kinshane

    9 years ago

    How ’bout them Red Sox?

    Reply

  3. strungoutonsix

    9 years ago

    Seth, missing your comments on spring training so far. What’s happened to you??

    Reply

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