Yellow journalism at The New York Times

One of the first rules of decent, principles-abiding journalism is that you don’t print rumors. That is nevertheless what The New York Times just did in a smear job on John McCain, who is very nearly certain to be the Republican nominee for president.

In a lengthy story that mostly dwells on long-past incidents and questions about his connections with lobbyists, the newspaper does something that shocks you more about its declining standards than it does about McCain’s ethics. It reports mere suspicions some staffers once had that he was engaged in a love affair with a woman lobbyist and their fears that letters he wrote on behalf of her client would be seen as a favor to her.

As evidence of any actual romance, the paper offers nothing. It tells us that eight years ago, during his first run for the presidency, advisers became worried that the woman was around the candidate too much. According to two unidentified sources, there was apparently fear there could be a romance, that the press would learn of it and that this could be ruinous for their boss, but no one knew anything. It’s on this basis — a rumor denied by McCain, the woman and others and predicated on nothing but speculation — that the paper went with the story.

Except for the political bias, this is the sort of journalistic escapade you would expect from the National Enquirer, no more valid than the scandal-mongering headlines that shout at you from grocery-store shelves at a checkout counter. But please note that the sensational material occupies no more than about a third of some 60 paragraphs, and that the Times early on gives itself an excuse for the malignant exercise. The story’s theme is provided in a line that says McCain’s “confidence in his own integrity has sometimes seemed to blind him to potentially embarrassing conflicts of interest.”

Maybe the Times’ confidence in its own pre-eminence among newspapers has blinded it to what it really did here. It took juicy, unsubstantiated, potentially devastating gossip sure to get immediate, national attention and used it as prelude and conclusion in a piece exploring whether McCain is quite so honest as he is widely believed to be.

The paper could have left out the trash and run an analysis — or better yet, a long editorial — that revisited and voiced opinions on all the old material it rehashes in the story. Even the letters McCain wrote to regulators concerning the woman’s client had been reported years ago and found unexceptional.

About the only thing newly reported was the romance rumor, and since this is the kind of matter The New York Times now trafficks in, I have a couple of propositions for the rag. There are lots and lots of cheap, ugly, unverified rumors about Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton out there. In Clinton’s case, they have been floating around for years. The Obama rumors are newer. It won’t take much work in either instance to find them — the Web is bloated with this claptrap — and then The New York Times can strike.

It can take one of the more lurid Clinton rumors, and then dress it up in a news story as a thought-provoking introduction to ruminations on some very real events, such as how she once made a mint on cattle futures. It can then use some outlandish rumor about Obama to pull readers into a piece seriously reflecting at interminable length on his well-known real-estate deal with a Chicago influence peddler. As with the McCain story, it can play both of these stories on the top of its front page.

But it won’t, of course. The New York Times confines its yellow journalism to stories about Republicans.

(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)