McCain, Drudge, and the NYT

The Drudge Report is headlining a leaked New York Times story alleging Senator John McCain gave “special treatment” to a lobbyist for the telecommunications industry at some unspecified point in the past (presumably while he was Chairman of the committee overseeing that legislation). No details are yet available, but part of the Drudge story is that the McCain campaign, and the Senator himself, has urged NYT Editor Bill Keller not to run the story. McCain himself confirms contact, but denies they are “in talks” with the paper.

UPDATE 2:33 a.m. 21 Dec: The story Drudge suggested would break on the NYT front page today isn’t there on the website, nor is any hint of the controversy. Drudge has now changed his report to say the reporter “hoped to break the story before Christmas” instead . . .

The specifics will come out, as they always do, and we can’t really discuss them until they do. We can ask how Drudge managed to get the “scoop” on a pending NYT scandal story, though. Some are already pointing fingers at the Romney campaign, suspected of providing Drudge with “opposition research” in the past, but they do not answer the question of how Romney would know about a pending NYT story.

I can venture an educated guess, based on Drudge’s own history. He has no real news-gathering operation himself, of course. His site posts links to stories posted elsewhere. His “scoops” have two main sources: from sites or reporters about to break a story, and hoping for the extra traffic and exposure Drudge can send them, and from reporters whose stories are languishing unpublished for one reason or another, as a way around their editors.

In fact, Drudge came to prominence in precisely the latter fashion. When Michael Isikoff, then with Newsweek, had the Monica Lewinsky story, his editors refused to run it immediately. Perhaps they wanted more confirmation, perhaps they didn’t want to hurt Clinton, perhaps they just didn’t believe it – the reason isn’t relevant. Isikoff was afraid that any delay would mean someone else would break the story and “scoop” him, so he or someone close to him leaked the news to Drudge, then an obscure website. The rest, as they say, is history.

I suspect the same mechanism is being used here by the NYT reporters. Now, that paper hasn’t been shy about running stories with flimsy verification in the recent past, but if this story was being held up, the reporter may have used Drudge for leverage, just as Isikoff and many others have since.

When an editor isn’t satisfied with a reporter’s sources or facts, he can tell him to get more confirmation, etc. But once he feels the reporter has spent enough time on the piece, he may just pull him and assign him to something else, figuring not to waste more time on it. If the reporter has a juicy enough tale to tell, though, Drudge will pick it up and run with it. Once it’s in the public eye, other news operations will want to check it out. Now, the original editor knows he has a reporter who has already done the legwork, or most of it, so he can beat the crowd to print by running the story he originally canned. It’s the journalistic equivalent of the “end around” play.

With McCain not only continuing his steady comeback in polling, but actually starting to move into contention nationally and perhaps even in Iowa (where he has long been written off), the moving sights of the media naturally home in on him. Given McCain’s post-“Keating Five” history of battling for ethics, including his misguided Campaign Finance Reform Act, it is doubtful there is much depth to the story itself. If that’s the case, being attacked by The New York Times might end up actually helping his campaign.

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