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Deb Saunders
Debra J. Saunders
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Bad News

Comment

One of two things will happen in the wake of Thursday's New York Times story that suggested John McCain may have had a "romantic" relationship nine years ago with a lobbyist who did business before the Senate Commerce Committee when he was chairman. (The story purported to be about McCain's ethics and dealings with D.C. lobbyists, in a failed attempt to gloss gossip with a patina of gravitas.)

Either new information will come forward to corroborate this weak story — based solely on the speculation — as opposed to actual knowledge — of two sources (who refused to be named and, for all we know, may have an ax to grind), and despite denials by both McCain and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman.

Even then, the Gray Lady's reputation will suffer, because the New York Times, not John McCain, has become the story. Or nothing new will come forward and the public will have every reason to believe that The New York Times and copycat media smeared McCain.

And the next time The Times'announces that it has lost circulation or is eliminating more newsroom positions, people will cheer, when they should be saddened. This story is bad news for the news business.

No doubt Times reporters Jim Rutenberg, Marilyn W. Thompson, David D. Kirkpatrick and Stephen Labaton believed they had a story.

That's why newspapers have editors, to insist that reporters nail down hunches that they believe in their guts to be true.

That didn't happen with this story. We've read this script before. In 2003, before the California gubernatorial recall election, the Los Angeles Times ran stories in which six women — four of whom remained anonymous — accused Arnold Schwarzenegger of groping or otherwise mistreating them between 1975 and 2000.

The public never believed Schwarzenegger behaved like a choirboy in his acting and Mr.

Universe days, but voters revolted against the dredging up of unsubstantiated allegations older than many voters. Gutter journalism may be the reason Californians opted for the Governator.

GOP strategist Dan Schnur, who worked on McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, remembers how the L.A. Times stories shored up Schwarzenegger's support among Republicans. Schnur noted, "John McCain can win a Republican primary against The New York Times."

Not that the Times' story is all good for McCain, Schnur added, as it keeps the candidate from talking about issues. Camp McCain has charged that The New York Times ran the lobbyist story Thursday because The New Republic was about to post a "behind the bombshell" story.

Times executive editor Bill Keller has denied that charge. "On the timing, our policy is, we publish stories when they are ready," he wrote in a widely dispersed e-mail sent to The Page political website. It's not good for journalism when the paper of record's editor has all the credibility of a losing candidate who claims to never pay attention to political polls.

It didn't have to be this way. Editors at the Idaho Statesman refused to report on rumors about Sen. Larry Craig hitting on men — until the Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call, broke the story in August 2007 that Craig had pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in a Minneapolis airport men's restroom. Craig's guilty plea nailed the story.

When Craig tried to blame his guilty plea on the fact that his "state of mind" was distorted because the Idaho Statesman was out to get him, people laughed.

No one is laughing at The Times' story. The paper set out to shine a spotlight on McCain's ethics, but it ended up turning a harsh light on its own ethical lapses.

E-mail Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com. To find out more about Debra J. Saunders, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.



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