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Evidence suggests New York Times editors deliberately held McCain lobbyist story
John Byrne
Published: Thursday February 21, 2008

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Hints that Washington Post also had elements of story

The New York Times faces a gathering storm after a panoply of new reports suggest the paper sat on a story detailing an alleged romantic involvement between Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and 40-year-old Washington lobbyist Vicki Iseman.

Last night, two Times staffers told Politico the second lead reporter on the Times story, Marilyn Thompson, announced she was leaving her job at the Times Feb. 12 after concerns the piece had not yet run. Thompson said she was returning to the Washington Post.

"Rumors had circulated internally that Thompson had been working on the McCain piece and was dissatisfied it had not yet run, according to two Times staffers," the site's Jonathan Martin and Michael Calderone wrote.

Martin asked Times Washington Bureau chief Dean Baquet if sitting on the piece had anything to do with her departure.

"I'm not going to go into stories that may or may not run in the paper," Baquet said. "I had long conversations with Marilyn, and it's about her regarding the Post as home."

Thompson's byline is the only one of the four authors not linked on the Times piece.

What's more, McCain aide Charlie Black said late last night that the Times had only moved their piece because another piece was to come out in The New Republic.

After The New Republic's reporter began making phone calls to the Times, they decided to publish, he said.

The magazine posted its piece detailing behind the scenes efforts at the Times Thursday afternoon.

"It pitted the reporters investigating the story, who believed they had nailed it, against executive editor Bill Keller, who believed they hadn't," writes TNR's Gabriel Sherman. "It likely cost the paper one investigative reporter, who decided to leave in frustration. And the Times ended up publishing a piece in which the institutional tensions about just what the story should be are palpable."

Sherman says the four reporters assigned to the McCain story came from both its Washington and New York bureaus, which have feuded in recent years.

The Drudge Reports first post on the developing Times' story came two days after the reporters met with McCain's attorney Bob Bennett, who previously represented Bill Clinton. The source of that Dec. 20 Drudge post remains unknown.

In a blog post, The New Republic's senior editor Noam Scheiber wrote: "The McCain campaign is apparently blaming TNR for forcing the Times' hand on this story. We can't yet confirm that. But we can say this: TNR correspondent Gabe Sherman is working on a piece about the Times' foot-dragging on the McCain story, and the back-and-forth within the paper about whether to publish it. Gabe's story will be online tomorrow."

Drudge fingered story in December

Last December, the conservative news and gossip site The Drudge Report floated a story averring that McCain was in a "ferocious behind the scenes battle" not to publish a report saying McCain had given special treatment to a female lobbyist. During the 2004 election campaign, Drudge published an apocryphal story alleging Sen. John Kerry (D-MA) had an affair, so Drudge's McCain story seemed to be of dubious authenticity.

But Drudge's claim may warrant a fresh look following the story's release.

"Just weeks away from a possible surprise victory in the primaries, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz has been waging a ferocious behind the scenes battle with the NEW YORK TIMES, the DRUDGE REPORT has learned," the site remarked, "and has hired DC power lawyer Bob Bennett to mount a bold defense against charges of giving special treatment to a lobbyist!"

"McCain has personally pleaded with NY TIMES editor Bill Keller [at left] not to publish the high-impact report involving key telecom legislation before the Senate Commerce Committee, newsroom insiders tell the DRUDGE REPORT," Drudge continued. "The paper's Jim Rutenberg has been leading the investigation and is described as beyond frustrated with McCain's aggressive and angry efforts to stop any and all publication."

"The drama involves a woman lobbyist who may have helped to write key telecom legislation," he added. "The woman in question has retained counsel and strongly denies receiving any special treatment from McCain."

The lead author on the Times piece: Jim Rutenberg.

Within hours, Post had several anonymous sources

A 1,000 word piece in Thursday's Washington Post -- which quotes four anonymous sources dealing with an alleged "inappropriate" liaison between Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) could suggest the paper already had a story ready to roll, raising new questions about why media outlets held a story that was apparently in the works as early as December.

The Post piece, "McCain's Ties To Lobbyist Worried Aides," by Michael Shear and Jeffrey Birnbaum, did not draw from the rich panoply of sources the Times piece did, and did not as strongly suggest McCain had had an affair.

The Washington Post receives early copies of the Times under an agreement whereby the Post is able to rewrite short form versions of Times pieces. The Times story, "For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk" was posted early Wednesday evening.

But its emergence on the same day as the Times piece -- with four sources of its own -- adds new kindling to claims that major media outlets sat on the story last year.

Author floated rumor LA Times held story

Journalist and author Ron Rosenbaum wrote in a blog post from October of last year that he'd heard the Los Angeles Times was sitting on a sex story about a presidential candidate.

Rosenbaum said he'd "run into a well-connected media person, who told me flatly, unequivocally that 'everyone knows' The LA Times was sitting on a story, all wrapped up and ready to go about what is a potentially devastating sexual scandal involving a leading Presidential candidate." The LA Times apparently never did publish the piece, if it is indeed the same story as reported by the New York Times.

The LA Times, however, did not publish an exclusive piece on the topic Thursday. Their article, "McCain's ties to female lobbyist questioned," relied on compiled wire reports from the Post and the Times, to which the Los Angeles paper is a subscriber.

The Post piece cited a senior McCain aide as the main source for their story. The Times cited the same aide, though with less emphasis.

"John Weaver, who was McCain's closest confidant until leaving his current campaign last year, said he met with Vicki Iseman at the Center Cafe at Union Station and urged her to stay away from McCain," the authors wrote. "Association with a lobbyist would undermine his image as an opponent of special interests, aides had concluded."

"We were running a campaign about reforming Washington, and her showing up at events and saying she had close ties to McCain was harmful," another anonymous aide said. "'The aide said the message to Iseman that day at Union Station in 1999 was clear: 'She should get lost.' The aide said Iseman stood up and left angrily."

Three "telecom lobbyists" and a former McCain aide spoke on condition of anonymity to the Post. It's unclear whether Weaver was a fifth source.

"I never discussed with him alleged things I had 'told people,' that had made their way "back to him," she wrote in an e-mail message. She said she never received special treatment from Mr. McCain's office.

Perhaps most damning in the Times piece is its second paragraph: "A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client's corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself -- instructing staff members to block the woman's access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity."

According to the Post, the lobbyist's firm is "heavy with municipalities and local government entities, which suggests that its major emphasis is on the controversial business of winning narrowly targeted, or 'earmarked,' appropriations."

Both the Times and the Post shied away from making direct sexual allegations, focusing instead on a tamer line: that McCain's close association with a lobbyist undermined his issue as a vociferous supporter of campaign finance reform.

Times no stranger to 'holding story' claims

The New York Times is no stranger to criticism over holding explosive content.

In late 2005, the Times published their now famous piece revealing a secret National Security Agency wiretapping program. Though its lead author, James Risen (at right), has refused to comment about events leading up to its publication under an agreement with the paper, a soon-to-be released book project seems to have pushed the Times to publish the piece, the details of which they'd had for some time.

"According to multiple newsroom sources close to Mr. Risen, the reporter was vocal in his desire to get the wiretapping piece into print, and he informed Times Washington bureau chief Philip Taubman that the material would be appearing in his book," the New York Observer wrote in early 2006. "Mr. Risen left the paper on book leave in January 2005 and resumed his campaign to get The Times to publish the wiretapping piece when he returned to the bureau last June. That set off a renewed push by The Times to get the story into print. Mr. Taubman resumed discussions with senior Bush administration officials over the paper's interest in publishing the scoop, according to sources with knowledge of the events, culminating in the Dec. 6 Oval Office face-off pitting President George W. Bush against Mr. Keller, Mr. Taubman and Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr."

In the final story, the authors admitted they had held the piece for a year because of concern from Bush Administration officials.

"The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny," the authors wrote. "After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting."

Co-bylined with Eric Lichtblau, Risen's story, "Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers Without Courts," appeared in the paper Dec. 16, 2005.