Questions About McCain Article in The New York Times

Yesterday, The New York Times published an article about John McCain’s relationships with lobbyists including one he had with a woman named Vicki Iseman during his 2000 campaign for President.  The article was widely interpreted as suggesting that Senator McCain had had a sexual relationship with Ms. Iseman,although it did not actually say this.  Overall, I thought the article had journalistic integrity and merited publication.   I do not believe that the article was intended to attack McCain or derail his presidential campaign.  It did not even claim that his relationships with lobbyists actually were inappropriate.  I think the main point of the story was that McCain has a blind spot about his own relationships with lobbyists because he firmly believes that he is honorable and is not influenced by lobbyists to act contrary to the public interest.  Note that the title was “For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk”.  The New York Times could have used a very different title if they had wanted to emphasize other aspects of the story, for instance: “McCain Had Romantic Relationship with Lobbyist During His 2000 Campaign” or “McCain Has History of Close Relationships With Lobbyists”.

However, I did have some questions about the story, especially the part about the supposed romantic relationship with Ms. Iseman.  I think the article could have and should have been more specific about what their sources had actually said about this relationship.  In the second paragraph of the article, the reporters wrote “Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself” (my italics).  

My first question is: what did the writers or the sources mean by the phrase  “convinced that the relationship had become romantic”?  Did the sources “know for a fact” that the relationship was romantic, or did they just “believe” this? People often believe things to be true even if they do not know with absolute certainty.  For instance, I believe that life exists on other planets, but I have no proof.  By using the word “convinced”, the article left open the interpretation that McCain’s advisors had proof that the relationship was romantic.  I think the Times should clarify what its sources really meant by “convinced”.

I found it interesting that the reporters talked about the relationship differently later in the article where they wrote “some of the senator’s advisers had grown so concernedthat the relationship had become romantic that they took steps to intervene” (my italics).  This is a much weaker statement than that in the second paragraph of the story because it does not imply that the advisors knew or had proof that the relationship was romantic, only that they were worried that it might be.  “Concerned” is weaker than “convinced”.  Even this statement could be interpreted by some readers as meaning that the advisers did have proof that the relationship had become romantic.  If the advisors did not actually have proof and meant that they were worried about the possibility, then it would have been better if the reporters had written “some of the senator’s advisers had grown so concerned that the relationship might have become romantic that they took steps to intervene.”  This version would have made it clear that the advisers were worried about the possibility of a romantic relationship but did not know for a fact that there was one.

My second question is: what did the sources mean by “romantic” in both sentences? Did they mean a physical, sexual relationship or an overly friendly relationship in which Senator McCain and Vicki Iseman had romantic feelings for each other? The first is obviously a more serious charge than the second, especially since Senator McCain was married to his current wife, Cindy, during the 2000 campaign. I find the term “romantic” ambiguous in the article and think the Times should clarify what their sources actually meant.

My last question is: why did the article discuss the relationship with Ms. Iseman in the second paragraph?  As I indicated above, I do not think that the main point of the article was to charge Senator McCain with sexual improprieties or even with inappropriate relationships with Ms. Iseman or other lobbyists.  I think the main point was that the Senator has often failed to realize that his relationships with lobbyists can create a perception of hypocrisy given his frequent criticisms of other politicians on this issue and his promotion of tighter campaign finance rules.  By writing about McCain’s relationship with Ms. Iseman at the beginning of the article, the Times gave this aspect of their article more focus than they should have.  If the article had started by indicating that McCain has a history of relationships with lobbyists and has sometimes failed to realize the consequence of these relationships and had then put the details about his relationship with Ms. Iseman in the middle of the story (on page A19), I think there would have been much less fuss about this article.

One more detail that I found interesting about this story is the picture of Ms. Iseman.  The printed edition of the paper used a picture of her cropped to just show her face, neck, and shoulders, but the online version of the article cropped the same picture to show more of her torso making it clear that she is wearing a ball gown.  Many people including TV commentators  attacked the Times for this choice of picture referring specifically to Ms. Iseman’s ball gown (suggesting that they had only seen the online version of the story).  Bill Keller, the Executive Editor of the paper, wrote about this in a “Talk to the Newsroom” article on the Times website, indicating that the picture of Ms. Iseman was the only one they could find from a legitimate, licensable  source (Getty Images).  He wrote that the Times “cropped the picture to show only her face” in the printed version of the story while acknowledging that the photo on the website showed her head and torso.  Looking at the actual printed page, it is clear that the picture had to be cropped to just show her face and shoulders in order to fit; the website apparently did not have the same space constraint, so a larger cropping was used.  If the Times did want to avoid a depiction of Ms. Iseman that showed her ball gown, then it should have used the same head and shoulders version of the picture in both locations.


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