Chat transcript

Walter V. Robinson on McCain's ethics questions

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February 22, 2008

Walter_V__Robinson: Good morning. I'm Walter Robinson, a journalism professor at Northeastern University and a former Globe editor and reporter. Somehow, I survived four presidential elections as a Globe political writer, including the 2000 campaign, when I reported several stories about Senator John McCain's contributions from so-called special interests. Those pieces are posted on the Politics page.
Walter_V__Robinson: Thanks for your interest in this issue.
orville: Is it really a big deal that McCain was friendly with a lobbyist? Aren't all politicians friends with lobbyists? Don't they often go into lobbying once they retire? I think this smells of attack journalism.
Walter_V__Robinson: Orville: A lot of people share your skepticism on this issue. For sure, politicians rely on lobbyists, and most politicians take advantage of their willingness to raise money for those pols. And in fact, many former politicians are reborn as lobbyists. I think the issue here is not so much the senator's alleged friendship with this one lobbyist, but whether she and other lobbyists received favors from McCain. Remember, McCain, in 2000 and again this year, is running against the special interests. It's the job of reporters to compare what politicians say against what they do.
holl8887: Hi, Walter, I read that 2000 article you wrote and you really uncovered all the dirt. Are you mad that The New York Times piece didn't give you credit in their report?
Walter_V__Robinson: Given the focus of the Times piece, which I think obscured the real issue, I'm not unhappy that the Globe was not mentioned.
Snowfall_Amount: This is a little off topic but have you heard of any stories about McCain's explosive temper? Or is it just a rumor?
Walter_V__Robinson: The Globe has written long articles about the senator's temperament, both in 2000 and again this year. You can find them online.
Ted: If the Times knew about this back in December, why didn't they report on it then?
Walter_V__Robinson: From what I've read about this -- and it seems there's been as much written about the internal Times process as about McCain's ties to lobbyists -- it seems clear that in December the Times editors were not comfortable that the story had been fully reported. A lot of people now question whether they ought to have been comfortable this month.
mary_contrary: Hasn't Obama tailored legislation for campaign donors too? Why don't people make a bigger deal over that?
Walter_V__Robinson: That's a good question, and ought to be examined. Of course, he's only been in the Senate for two years. And he says he takes no contributions from lobbyists.
yobama: Walter, do you believe the 24 hour news channels are playing this more as a sex story than what it really is -- a story about hypocrisy?
Walter_V__Robinson: That is certainly a tendency at cable news channels. But in this case, I think it's hard to blame them for doing so, since the Times itself chose to focus on the allegedly improper relationship.
Unexpected_: Given McCain's self described reputation as (in his early years) a hard drinking brawler, would a story like this really be any kind of a big deal? The guy doesn't exactly put a lot of time into presenting himself as Captain Morality. Do you think that even if there were an "inappropriate" personal relationship here, would this have any impact on an electorate that already knows Senator McCain pretty well?
Walter_V__Robinson: Well, I'm not sure it's safe to conclude that the broad electorate knows all that much about Senator McCain or his likely Democratic opponent. I suspect that you and I -- and people who are interested enough in these issues to join this kind of forum -- probably know a lot more than most voters. Your other question is a tough one. I think we need to know a lot about the character of anyone who wants to be president. But this is tricky ground for reporters. If infidelity is an issue, that does not mean you can report it without strong evidence and on-the-record sources.
IM4Quality: Do you feel McCain is responding to this story in the correct manner?
Walter_V__Robinson: Tough to answer. Obviously, he needed to address it. He did that -- in more muted fashion than one would expect from the senator. I doubt that he wants the story to be in the headlines every day. He pointed a finger right back at the Times, which politically was pretty adroit.
maverist: I think the bigger story in this is the rehashing of the Keating scandal: Do you think McCain will or should have to deal with more questions about this and contradictions to his Maverick persona, or does a previous campaign negate past issues?
Walter_V__Robinson: The Globe dealt at length in 2000 with the Keating scandal. I think sometimes it is the case that if an issue has been raised in the past, it tends not to get as much attention the next time around. This year, I suspect that the Keating issue will get a thorough re-airing. And it should.
gardenstater: As a newsroom insider, can you address the kind of tensions that occur when investigative reporters meet resistance from top editors on the readiness of a story like this for publication?
Walter_V__Robinson: I'm no longer a newsroom insider, and all I know about what went on in the Times newsroom is what I've read. But generally speaking, I can tell you that reporters and editors sometimes do not see eye to eye on a story. But that's a good thing. And we have editors, damn good editors, in higher positions, because they are supposed to make sure that articles are fully reported before a decision is made to publish them.
what_s_with_mccain_: Back in 2000, what was the clue that got you on the Paxson-McCain connection? Was it an accident, did you get a tipoff from a source? Also, like the Bush-military record story you did, what's it like to be first on a story and then see some other outfit redo it and get huge national play?
Walter_V__Robinson: Imitation is the highest... etc.
Walter_V__Robinson: I first became curious about Paxson in an odd way. I had an interview scheduled with the senator, to be done on his flight from New Hampshire back to Washington. I showed up for the flight, and it was a corporate jet that said Paxson on the side. The senator had just given a speech assailing the influence of special interests. I later looked up Paxson, discovered they owned scores of television stations, and that McCain had oversight on telecommunications issues. So I started to make phone calls about Paxson and other telecom companies, and stumbled upon the letters and the donations.
Tim: Walter, do you think it was inappropriate for the NY Times to insinuate a romantic relationship existed between McCain and this woman without any real evidence, except an unknown source "suspected"?
Walter_V__Robinson: Yes.
oonagh: Has there been a shift in how the NYT makes news judgments recently? The Times ran an article several days ago suggesting that Obama "overexaggerated" his drug use in high school and college. That also seemed like a strange article to me. How do you prove that somebody used fewer drugs that he's willing to admit?
Walter_V__Robinson: I'm sure we're going to be reading a lot about this, including from the NYT's public editor, Clark Hoyt.
NY_Times_Reader: The Times story indicates that McCain has a history of hypocritical political nuance throughout his public life. For example, the resignation from the campaign finance reform organization. Could it be that this article like most other liberal strikes at Republican candidates is a personal attack that they assume he will not deny to even give it credibility? Do you honestly think that the majority of the "broad electorate" actually think that any of these public officials are moral people?
Walter_V__Robinson: If what you're suggesting is that the Times -- or any other paper -- only investigates Republican candidates, you might want to check their coverage of Senator Clinton's campaign. To be sure, she is the home-state senator. But she's had a lot more scrutiny, of the kind she hasn't liked, than has Senator McCain.
Pha_Pha: Why don't you focus on why Obama has done nothing in his political life?
Walter_V__Robinson: In fact, the Globe has already devoted substantial space to Obama's political life. And if he wins, you'll be reading an awful lot more.
drudgeboy: Do they censor the questions we can ask ?
Walter_V__Robinson: Well, I'm picking them. There are a couple of tasteless questions I'm ignoring. But not yours. Fire away.
Pha_Pha: I wish you stop trying to make the Times report seem true.
Walter_V__Robinson: I'm not defending the Times report; I'll leave that to them.
Ted: There's no impropriety if the sex didn't happen and both have refuted the allegations, so why does this story have legs...?
Walter_V__Robinson: If you peel away all the stuff about the alleged relationship, there is a story: Was the senator influenced to take action on behalf of a major campaign contributor? The answer was pretty clear in 2000:
Pha_Pha: This is a nonstory, drop it already
Walter_V__Robinson: Well, maybe we should drop it -- just for the moment -- because it's lunchtime.
Walter_V__Robinson: Thanks to all of you for your interest in this issue, and for sharing your views.
Walter_V__Robinson: Best,
Walter_V__Robinson: Walter Robinson

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