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)


  1. Elmo

    Take any US Senator who is a candidate for his party’s nomination to be president. Add a lobbyist who is traveling on the candidate’s plane and the lobbyist having matters pending in a committee chaired by the Senator.

    Is this worthy of comment?

    Is the fact that the Senator’s staff thinks it looks bad worthy of comment?

  2. Hexalectris

    The smear job here comes from people who count on their target audience to not have read the NYT article. I did, twice, wondering what all the steam is about. I’m still wondering. There is no smear in the article of Senator McCain. There is, however, an examination of what and who McCain is, and I certainly expect hardcore press intrusions into the lives and abilities of presidential candidates. They ain’t running for dog catcher.

    Right wing writers, as all commentators should, allow people to read the article for themselves, make up their own minds and cast their own votes. But that’s not what a rabid right wing does. Is it Karl Rove?

  3. Alexandria Lupu

    It’s interesting that now the Times is labeled with yellow journalism. However, in the 90’s, when the Times was continually on Clinton’s case, day after day, we heard no such comments. The Times now merely stated the facts with the implication of the undue influence of lobbyists, in McCain’s campaign staff and in his past record.

  4. JerZGirl

    I’ve seen the rumor in multiple places. The Times may have started it, but others read it in the same light and have produced their own stories. All I can say about this is “AMEN JAY!” Unbiased reporting should be just that. If you’re going to report suppositions on one, then do it on all. Today’s MSM reporting is far from unbiased, unfortunately, and sensationalism too frequent.

    Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit.

    Wisdom is knowing not to put it in fruit salad.

  5. DejaVuAllOver

    I think the NYT lost their minds YEARS ago. Let’s not forget the Judith Miller saga, the let’s-sit-on-the-president-spying-on-us- until-Bush-IS-reelected crap, their reporting on Saddam’s supposed mis-deeds years after the fact to justify war, their story about AIDS in Sweden, their relentless propaganda campaign for Israel, the list goes on. The NYT has been a disgrace to truth and journalism for a long time. I’m no Christian nor GOP’er. But anyone with a memory longer than a news-cycle is just plain disgusted with what used to be a credible paper.

  6. Arlo J. Thudpucker

    As I recall, DRUDGE, not the Times, broke the story in December, 2007.

    I suspect “romantic relationship” are the weasel words.
    No romance, just business. Pay to play.


    Arlo J. Thudpucker

  7. staunchdem

    It’s not a smear if it’s true.
    This story has unearthed other seemingly questionable incidents going back to and including the Keating 5 incident.
    My guess is that the NYT has more and time will tell what’s true and what isn’t.
    I just read where the Huckster expects to go all the way to the convention and it sounded like he was hoping for a McCain stumble and a brokered Convention.
    I for one would love to see a fractured Retardican Party.

  8. Belle

    I did not get too upset over McCain having a fling.. Most all politicans do it..what bothers me is what did the man have to do with the lobby group she worked for? That should be the important question and him whispering he had nothing to do with her sounds a bit like a certain president who ” did not have sex with that woman” Remember that? and who believes a bleating old man standing there denying the whole thing. Where there is smoke there is fire, folks!!!Bet The Times has a bit more to trot out before it is all over.