The New York Times ensnared John McCain in one of the worst-timed and most pointless scandal stories ever written last night, quoting two anonymous sources who claim McCain confessed to never-specified but vaguely "inappropriate" behavior with a female telecommunications lobbyist, rode with her somewhere on a jet, and then his twitchy, neurotic aides supposedly decided the lobbyist had to be kept away from the senile old man. This all happened nine years ago and was outlined on Drudge Report two months ago, when there would have been some kind of point in the Times running even this tepid story because the Republicans had not yet rejected slimy philanderer Rudy Giuliani in favor of straight-talking maverick of integrity John McCain. But now McCain is the nominee in all but name, and this sad, toothless scandal story will be long forgotten by the time the general election rolls around eight months from now. What was the Times thinking?It was probably thinking about how its editor Bill Keller is developing a reputation for spiking stories when powerful people ask him to.
The bones of the McCain story, at least, were in place in December. Drudge's December 20 post included the key elements, and the Times' reporting was far enough along that McCain's staff was lobbying Times editors hard to kill the story. At one point, McCain talked with editor Keller.
The story then "stalled." Drudge wrote that lead reporter Jim Rutenberg was "beyond frustrated" with the lobbying against the story. Another reporter on the team, Marilyn Thompson, left the Times soon thereafter; her departure for the Washington Post was announced Feb. 12.
The backdrop for all this is Keller's much-criticisized decision in 2004 to hold until after the presidential election, and indeed for a full 14 months, the blockbuster news of how the government was listening to phone calls of people inside the U.S. without warrants. Why did Keller hold that story? Because the White House asked him to, sort of like how would-be president McCain asked him to hold the lobbyist story.
Keller seems to have let the story loose this time around to avoid another PR disaster; he didn't want the Times to get upstaged by the highbrow competitors he actually cares about, like the New Republic, which was working on a story about the meta-scandal within the Times, or Politico or Newsweek, also reportedly working on stories.
With revenue plummeting and its board grappling with a hostile investor, why did the Times yet again hold a big story until it went stale?