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'Times' Article on McCain Stirs Debate

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Senator John McCain has spent the past couple of days defending his reputation as an enemy of special interests, someone who is not influenced by lobbyists. The apparent Republican candidate for president has continued to castigate the New York Times for printing a story on Thursday that questioned his judgment on matters of ethics and alluded to a possible relationship with a lobbyist several years ago.

NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us from our studios in New York.

David, thanks very much for being with us.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Anytime.

SIMON: Now, the Times has been criticized by Senator McCain and a lot of people on talk shows. What about other people in the news industry? How have they handled the story, or not?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, any time you have the notion of a presidential candidate, a possible romantic liaison, questions about favors, you know, it stirs up a lot of interest. You saw the cable news break into all their shows on - I guess it was Wednesday night a little after 8:00.

Delicate handling by a lot of the print media. You saw the Seattle Post Intelligencer told its readers that it felt that the Times' reporting - reliant on anonymous sources, not having proved a romantic liaison, not having proved favors done - it said it did not meet its standards. So, although it's a subscriber of the New York Times' news service, it did not republish the piece.

The Boston Globe, which is owned by the New York Times Company, the parent company of the Times itself, published the version done by the Washington Post, a catch-up story done by a rival newspaper. Rick Stengel, the top editor at Time magazine, told viewers of MSNBC he did not think it was worthy of publishing.

So, although there's been other people rallying around and although it sort of helped define the news cycle, there's been a very kind of queasy reaction in the journalist realm.

SIMON: Senator McCain held a press conference in Toledo, if I'm not mistaken, and denied some - denied really everything specific in the New York Times story, which, as you know, is all based on unnamed sources. However, some of those unnamed sources told the Times that they tried to warn Senator McCain about the appearance of his relationship with the lobbyist.

Senator McCain said explicitly he received no such warning from no staff member. Now, does this put him a position that if so much as one staff member or former staff member attests to such a meeting and can prove it, he's got a serious problem?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, he said that there had been no intervention, no discussion with him, no confrontation with his aides over the question of his relationship with the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman. That's going to be a key denial because the Times says that that occurred several times.

SIMON: But they couldn't get anyone to put a name to it.

FOLKENFLIK: No, they couldn't. The most they got sourced directly on the record was from a longtime McCain adviser and a former aide, John Weaver. And Weaver said that he had indeed met with Ms. Iseman at Union Station in D.C. to basically tell her to stay away from the guy, that there was a perception that they were too cozy and that she had said things that had gotten back to the senator and his aides indicating that she had perhaps untoward pull with him.

He did not confirm on the record that he expressed any concern about a romantic liaison or even the perception of one. But it was clear that there was enough of a concern that it caused him to intervene with her to create distance between the two.

SIMON: Senator McCain's got a pretty good relationship with the press personally, doesn't he?

FOLKENFLIK: Hard to beat. I mean, the guy ran a campaign in 2000 - '99 and 2000, his bus the Straight Talk Express. And he invited reporters on and they talk about politics, they talk about the polls, they talk about strategy, they talk about policy and he wears them out.

I remember as a congressional reporter back in '99, 2000, when some of the issues involving the same corporate figure, Mr. Paxon, over at this broadcasting company that McCain has perhaps to have done favors for. He basically disclosed all of the documents relating to that issue and all of the documents relating to any issue that he had sent to federal regulators.

I mean, it took me hours to go through that with a bunch of other reporters but it also earned him kind of a grudging respect saying, hey, look, this guy is doing the exact opposite of hiding.

SIMON: Thanks very much. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.