One of the chief complaints about The New York Times’ story on the relationship between McCain and lobbyist Vicki Iseman is that the paper is implying more than it has proven. That’s certainly true, but as far as journalism goes, it’s an awfully wrongheaded criticism.
So much of reporting, especially reporting on situations where the facts are hidden, unclear, or developing, depends on creating meaning from only what is known, which is often a set of suggestive, but not definitive, facts. A lot of journalism magic happens between readers’ ears.
With that in mind, let’s look at the facts about political influence in the story, the information presented about McCain’s Commerce Committee work on issues of interest to Iseman’s clients:
* He wrote letters to the FCC asking them to rule in a way that would allow a company to own two television stations “in the same city, a crucial issue for Glencairn Ltd., one of Ms. Iseman’s clients.”
* He favored a minority-ownership tax incentive program. Iseman had several clients who favored that step.
* He twice tried to “advance” legislation permitting companies to own stations in overlapping markets. This issue “was important” to Iseman’s client Paxson Communications (now Ion Media Networks).
* In late 1999, Iseman asked McCain’s staff to intervene with the FCC on behalf of Paxson. McCain agreed, and he sent two letters to the FCC.
Look at the first three. Two concern loosening ownership laws, a step that, while controversial to some, is fully consistent with McCain’s deregulatory ken. It’s also not clear if Iseman’s lobbied McCain on those issues, and her clients are far from the only ones who would have been aided by those actions. Parse the Times’ phrasing, and you’ll see what I mean.
The tax program can’t be explained as deregulatory, but the best the Times can do is say that “several business” represented by Iseman favored such a program. And so, presumably, would many others. So where’s the evidence this had anything to do with her?
But the last bullet is quite something: the letters helping Paxson Communications are the only solid suggestion of an Iseman-McCain quid pro quo. And to my mind, that makes this as much of scandal of influence as a scandal of sex.
The Paxson letters broke in The Boston Globe on January 5, 2000. (“MCCAIN PRESSED FCC IN CASE INVOLVING MAJOR CONTRIBUTOR.”) Follow up stories like “Cash-cut crusader accused of hypocrisy” and “A Maverick’s Paper Trail” kept up the heat. It was a major embarrassment for John McCain, and pierced his reformist armor as a New Hampshire battle with George W. Bush drew near.
Now let’s take a quick look at what’s actually said about the Iseman-McCain relationship:
* After becoming “convinced” that it was a “romantic relationship” top advisors took several steps to distance the two—asking her to avoid the senator. They confronted the senator. They asked staffers to “block” her access. All that’s according to “several people involved in the campaign”
* When McCain started getting negative press attention for sending letters to try to aid one of her clients, campaign aides worried that press attention would turn to “her involvement”
* They said this was especially concerning, because “even the appearance of a close bond with a lobbyist” could undermine his Straight Talk reform image.
There are some more details about Iseman and McCain, but not many. Various sources report that they two were spotted together (on her client’s jet, in his offices, at events and fundraisers). Two sources say they confronted McCain and that he acknowledged that he’d been “behaving inappropriately.”
Of course, everybody knows that politicians get money from and take meetings with lobbyists. And everybody knows that politicians do things that favor those lobbyists’ clients. But proving causation between the two events is next to impossible, absent a Duke Cunningham-esque smoking gun-like document.
So usually the best journalists can do is imply causation: “Mayor Hizzenhonor overruled city engineers and moved a planned sewage plant after accepting campaign donations from a neighborhood association.”
Go back, if you will, to those first three bullets. Here, we have the Times—weakly, I’d say—implying that sort of garden-variety political-corruption causation between three McCain actions and Iseman. The fourth bullet, the Paxson letters, strikes me as quite different—especially since we now know how seriously his aides took the developing scandal at the time.
But it’s the reporting on the affair that has everyone clucking. Few balk when the Times, or any other paper, does that sort of investigative grunt work, about the dry world of political influence: cataloging checks and votes, suggesting with words and backslapping photos, and leaving readers to draw a conclusion about cause and effect. But this time, there’s a whiff of sex, and everyone’s all distracted that the paper implied what it didn’t prove. Presumably the Times went as far as it could go in showing us the truth. And now readers are drawing their own conclusions on the character of the relationship, from less than complete—but quite suggestive—facts.
And why, exactly, is that such a scandal?