N.Y. Times McCain Story 'Fit to Print'?

Critics question the newspaper's timing on controversial report.

ByABC News
February 21, 2008, 3:16 PM

Feb. 21, 2008— -- With the campaign of presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on the defensive over a New York Times story that calls out the candidate's reputed past relationship with a lobbyist, questions are flying about the newspaper's timing.

The Times has reportedly been on the story since November, and the paper did endorse the now-presumptive nominee in January, saying that he "demonstrated that he has the character to stand on principle."

The paper's executive editor, Bill Keller, released a statement Thursday, offering his rationale for the decision to publish now.

"On the substance, we think the story speaks for itself. On the timing, our policy is, we publish stories when they are ready," he said. "'Ready' means the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction, the subjects have all been given a full and fair chance to respond, and the reporting has been written up with all the proper context and caveats."

Keller continued to say that the McCain story "was no exception." He added that the story was "a long time in the works," and that he received a final version two days ago, which went through final editing and a routine pass by the paper's lawyers.

According to a story published Thursday on The New Republic's Web site, New York Times staffers debated their McCain story intensely.

"The reporters working on this piece felt passionately that they had nailed down the allegations. Keller believed that they couldn't just run with a piece that had a string of anecdotal evidence," New Republic writer Gabriel Sherman told ABC News.

McCain answered reporters' questions Thursday morning, and he flatly denied the details from The New York Times story. He described the lobbyist in question, Vicki Iseman, as "a friend" and said, "This whole story is based on anonymous sources."

Iseman is a partner at the lobbying firm Alcade & Fay, which also decried the report.

"The allegations and malicious innuendo reported by The New York Times yesterday are completely and utterly false," firm president Kevin Fay said in a statement Thursday.