22 February 2008

McCain story: Keating Five Again

A story on the front page of the New York Times yesterday attracted a lot of attention. This is surprising because it is oddly structured, as if the editors and/or reporters involved wanted to delay a casual reader's recognition of their point. The headline doesn't really tip anyone off to the explosive nature of the contents. It says, "For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses its Own Risk."

There's the implication in that wording that people who are too self-confident are those most likely to fall into an ethical trap or lapse, that "pride goeth before a fall." Still, its a roundabout bit of wording, and subtlety isn't what headlines are for.

The lead paragraph might also be a soporific. "Early in Senator John McCain’s first run for the White House eight years ago, waves of anxiety swept through his small circle of advisers."

So events of 2000 are getting front-page attention just now? and they concern anxiety? about what? Ah, that would be the point.

The second graf finally gets us to the gist. Or does it? "A female lobbyist had been turning up with him at fund-raisers, visiting his offices and accompanying him on a client’s corporate jet. Convinced the relationship had become romantic, some of his top advisers intervened to protect the candidate from himself — instructing staff members to block the woman’s access, privately warning her away and repeatedly confronting him, several people involved in the campaign said on the condition of anonymity."

It sounds a bit like the story's going to be about adultery here. But it veers from that soon thereafter. The story leaves the "anxieties" of staff members unconfirmed. There is no reason to think McCain was having a "romantic" liaison.

But the woman who made the staffers anxious was a "lobbyist," and that moves the story forward a bit. The lobbyist, Ms Isenman, represented telecommunications companies for whom the work of Mr. McCain's Senate Committee, Commerce, was critical. Her clients contributed tens of thousands of dollars to his "campaigns" (by which I take it the team of reporters mean both his campaign for re-election to the Senate in 1998 [he won his third term that year] and that 2000 campaign for President.)

So the story is saying that McCain became very chummy (however 'platonically'!) with a lobbyist who helped him raise money for his campaigns and it is at least suggesting that she did this for the interest of her telecommunications clients -- there was an implicit quid pro quo.

The McCain camp has unsurprisingly denied that there was any impropriety involving Ms Isenman. The Democrats are too immersed in their continuing nomination struggle to pay much attention to it, although surely they're storing the clippings and will keep an eye on anything that might give one of them ammunition for the autumn.

In the meantime, we might consider the question of the quality of the journalism involved. As I'v already indicated, the story seems oddly structured. The traditional structure for a news story is the "inverted pyramid," so called because the structure rests on a single point. The lead paragraph should state exactly what it is that makes this story worthy of the reader's time. Everything else opens out, perhaps in various directions, but rests on that point.

Aside from that, there are both auspicious and inauspicious things about this story, and it will be interesting to see how it shakes out over time.

On the positive side, some of this jives with McCain's most tarnished hour as a public servant. I mean the "Keating Five" business. If it turns out to be creditable -- and I suspect we'll discover this as other news organizations chase the same rabbit now -- then it could mean real trouble for McCain. And he'd deserve that sort of trouble.

On the one hand, there's a lot of anonymous sourcing, which is always a bad sign in terms of reliability. Not every anonymous source is a public-spirited Mark Felt. Not every, not most, not many. They generally have their own agenda and "letting the public know important truths" need not be high on that list.

Indeed, the end of the second graf of this story is: "...several people involved in the campaign said on condition of anonymity."

So, as you can see, I'm on the fence.

Anarcho-capitalism: catch the fever!

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.