The best of Times, the worst of Times
Everyone seems to have an opinion about the New York Times expose of John McCain. From what I've read, most of them seem completely backwards (Howard Kurtz at the Washington Post has a good summary of the aftermath).
From my point of view, the story isn't the problem. It's the presentation.
Clearly, even these old allegations of questionable dealings with lobbyists and power brokers are worth rehashing. Unless you're a political junkie, you probably don't know about them. But the story goes further, leading with allegations of a close relationship between McCain and a female lobbyist named Vicki Iseman. According to the story, McCain's own people felt something inappropriate was going on and intervened to push Iseman out of his life.
That's newsworthy. And being newsworthy, it is incumbent upon the Times to ask why. Why did McCain have such a close relationship with this particular lobbyist? Why did his aides become so uncomfortable? Why did they take the extraordinary step of running her off?
The problem, it seems, is that many readers don't like the answers. The Times was left in the unenviable position of publishing these answers, knowing they are bound to offend and open the paper to attack, or hide them out of some rationale of good taste and fairness.
The Times had to publish the information. It's the business they're in. As HST was fond of saying, Buy the ticket, take the ride.
So what went wrong?
The story is full of jerky transitions, it lacks an authoritative voice, and the lede reads more like gawky innuendo than tough-minded reporting. As Gabriel Sherman reports, there was an internal battle over how best to release the beast.
The result is a classic example of journalism by committee - too many cooks and all that.
In the end, I'd guess the more cautious (and senior) editor Bill Keller stripped out much of the reporters' context and background surrounding the allegations of an affair to expose the "facts," thereby leaving the reader to weigh them and decide for him or herself whether they rung true.
The "context and caveats" just aren't there.
Unfortunately, that kind of editing often has the opposite effect of its intent. It leaves the narrative full of holes. Readers - and interested parties - are left to fill those holes in with whatever opinions, theories, conspiracies they have at hand:
Are these gaps a result of shoddy or incomplete reporting? What aren't they telling us? Why did they lead with this allegation of an affair but not make explicit the connection to other parts of the story? Is the Times biased? Why do they hate John McCain? Hate Republicans? Did the paper slip in the bit about the affair just to embarrass McCain? What does Iseman have to do with the Keating Five?
Caution was misinterpreted as coyness. Coyness appears subjective. And subjectivity is an irresponsible motive when these kinds of charges are made.
Uncomfortable facts are like angry badgers. When you catch one, you need to deal with the damn thing yourself, not throw it to the reader and hope for the best.
(Note: David Brooks has an interesting analysis of the men behind McCain - and possibly behind the story.)