Coming on the heels of New York Times public editor Clark Hoyt's column criticizing the paper's McCain investigation, the Sunday political round tables chewed over the McCain-NYT flap. The Times has yet to follow its investigation with additional proof that McCain and Iseman were romantically involved. Dan Rather, no stranger to a controversial investigation of a Republican presidential nominee, weighed in on the Times piece. "These aren't ordinary reporters, these are outstanding journalists," Rather told Chris Matthews, but added: "If they can't back it up they're in a heap of trouble."
Rather found himself in a heap of trouble over a story he couldn't back up. What's interesting about Rather's take is that he seems to recognize that the flaws in his 60 Minutes segment about President Bush's national guard service were his reliance on documents to support a thesis that many said was true based on firm, on-the-record sources. The Times piece suggests that McCain and Iseman carried on a romantic relationship, but never proves it with evidence beyond anonymously quoted concerns voiced by former McCain staffers. As a reader, you get the sense that the Times reporters know more than is stated in print. That might give the reporters confidence in going with their anecdotal evidence. But will that be enough to counter the conservative backlash against the piece? The irony here is that many people never questioned the fundamental truth of Rather's 60 Minutes piece, focusing instead on the potentially fraudulent documents. By leading with the sexual allegations, the Times has opened itself to similar charges on a story that has substance. Indeed, McCain's ties to lobbyists are complex and worthy lines of reporting to explore, given that he's staked his political identity on serving as the scourge of special interests. The Washington Post followed the Times with questions of McCain's connection to lobbyists and hasn't been dragged into the media vortex. In keeping clear of insinuations of sexual impropriety, the Post's pieces have kept the debate trained on McCain--where it should be.