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.
He added that the firm's business with McCain "has been professional, appropriate and consistent with his legislative, jurisdictional and constituent duties."
Calling the story "without foundation or merit," Fay described Iseman as "a hardworking professional whose 18-year career has been exemplary, and she has our full support."
Conservative talk radio hosts accused the newspaper of a supremely cynical slam job.
"The story is not the story," said Rush Limbaugh. "The story is that this paper endorsed John McCain, sat on the story and now puts it out just prior to McCain wrapping up the nomination."
Many critics, and not just conservatives, say the Times did just that, basing their story on two anonymous "former campaign associates," who presented no proof of an affair, just concern about the possibility of one.
"That's not proof that he was having an affair with her [Iseman], and The New York Times, the greatest newspaper in the world I believe, has to have a higher standard of proof," said New Yorker media reporter Ken Auletta.
The irony, he said, is that the Times might have uncovered a solid story, but it has now been obscured.
"They had a terrific story there about McCain and potential hypocrisy about lobbying," Auletta said. "Why'd they have to have to muddy that story up with innuendo that was not proven?" he asked.