New YorkTimes 0, New Republic 0, McCain 1
How two publications spooked each other into running weak stories.
The McCain scandal story resembles a stock scene in an old Western. The sheriff trains his gun on the outlaw. The outlaw trains his gun on the sheriff. The bartender sneezes, the guns start blazing, and the friendly piano player (or possibly the prostitute with a heart of gold) gets shot in the crossfire.
The New York Times purportedly rushed its story into print because it was worried that the New Republic would go to press with a story criticizing the Times for chickening out. (The Times denies this.) The Times' premature publication of the scandal story—I agree with the general consensus that it fails to demonstrate either that McCain had an affair with a lobbyist or that the lobbyist exercised undue influence on him—prompted the New Republic, in turn, to rush its media-criticism piece into print. The New Republic piece, contrary to the Times' apparent fears, is only mildly informative, and although it insinuates at the end that the Times failed to nail down a story that was nonetheless true, it provides no evidence demonstrating that it's true and doesn't really lay out an argument that it's true. New Republic editor Frank Foer says it was never the magazine's intent to establish whether the sex story was true, and that if the Times hadn't published its piece, his magazine might not have published its own. Rebranding sex-scandal stories (in this case, rumors) as press stories is a time-honored way for the "quality" press to spread gossip and sanctimony at the same time. (To learn the other ways, click here.)
McCain, of course, is the piano player/prostitute in this scheme, and, obviously, he's the one who's been shot. But (I predict) he will be carried upstairs, and wise old Doc will tend to him, and he'll be back on his feet in no time. The Times and the New Republic are looking at a much longer convalescence. (What is it with the Times' political coverage these days? Two weeks ago the paper ran an idiotic story arguing that Barack Obama didn't take enough drugs when he was in college.)
Regardless of whether he had the affair, McCain wins. If he was Vicki Iseman's lover, the Times and New Republic have now discredited the story by failing to produce much in the way of evidence. If he wasn't Vicki Iseman's lover, then he has shamed the press with his righteous indignation. As a bonus, the scandal story has provoked an apparent rapprochement with McCain-haters Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham, who hate the Times a lot more.
Do voters believe McCain? Watch this video to find out:
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph Hillary Clinton by Jonathan Ernst/Getty Images, Barack Obama by Sean Gardner/Getty Images.