Nothing To See Here, Ms. Iseman

The Times concedes nothing

The New York Times has just posted a “Note to Readers” regarding last year’s highly controversial story that included information on John McCain’s relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman. Here it is in full:

An article published on Feb. 21, 2008, about Senator John McCain and his record as an ethics reformer who was at times blind to potential conflicts of interest included references to Vicki Iseman, a Washington lobbyist. The article did not state, and The Times did not intend to conclude, that Ms. Iseman had engaged in a romantic affair with Senator McCain or an unethical relationship on behalf of her clients in breach of the public trust.

Agreeing to run the statement is part of a settlement between the Times and Iseman, according to Editor & Publisher:

The settlement, which does not include any payment, retraction or apology from the Gray Lady, includes an agreement for the Times to post an online Op-Ed from Iseman’s attorneys. Executive Editor Bill Keller will counter with his own Web essay. …

The Times also plans to run in Friday’s edition a note to readers saying that the paper did not state or imply that there was an improper relationship between Iseman and McCain.

Emphasis added, because I think E&P has this very wrong: You see, there’s quite a bit of difference between “imply” and “conclude.”

One year ago, when the Iseman piece was received to near-universal opprobrium, I felt very lonely using that logic to defend the Times’s reporting. Here’s some of what I wrote the afternoon the story was printed:

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. …

[U]sually 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.”

I’ve thought a lot about the Iseman story since then, and while I’ve had some queasy second thoughts, I’m still, when it boils down to it, not ready to retract my defense. Again, journalists routinely imply things that they do not conclude, by presenting suggestive facts and claims and leaving the conclusions up to the audience.

In fact, I’d argue it’s that very difference that makes this “Note” sweet enough for the Times to swallow. Beyond the symbolism of agreeing to say something—anything!—it concedes absolutely nothing.

And I’ll be surprised if Keller’s online op-ed goes any further.

UPDATE 2/19: Hmmm. Well, Keller did go a bit further. The key section:

The McCain campaign and some of its supporters set out aggressively to portray the article in question as a story about an unsubstantiated affair. But it was not that, either explictly or implicitly.

And so Keller denies that the article was about an affair, implied or not. Perhaps he means the article taken as a whole wasn’t about an affair, that it was meant to establish, as Keller writes, that McCain was “sometimes careless” to avoid the appearance of impropriety around moneyed interests. Given that the Iseman revelations took up a bare percentage of the article’s words, that’s an argument, I suppose. But this is a parse too far: of course the Iseman section implied a romantic relationship. Keller’s denial, as artfully worded as it may be, rings mighty hollow.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.