Within minutes of when the New York Times' story on John McCain and his possible relationship with a lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, broke, conservatives were already questioning the timing. The Drudge Report, which in December of last year reported that the Times was working on the story, led with a banner headline in its typical style: "NOW THAT HE'S SECURED NOMINATION: NYT DOWNLOADS ON MCCAIN."
Clearly, the allegation that the Times held its story until after McCain had sewed up the Republican nomination will be a theme for conservatives as they rally around their presumptive nominee. Appearing on Fox News' "Hannity & Colmes" Wednesday night, the Washington Examiner's Bill Sammon said, "I've been predicting for weeks that, once McCain secured the nomination, the mainstream media love affair would -- would abruptly end and the press would turn against McCain. And sure enough, it has happened." On the National Review's Campaign Spot blog, Jim Geraghty wrote, "As far as we can tell, back in December, the article looked like an unfair, thinly-sourced hit piece on a possible Republican nominee; now it looks like an unfair, thinly-sourced hit piece on the likely Republican nominee."
Now, if the Times really were trying to time this article for political gain, to help Democrats' chances in the presidential election, you'd think it'd have a better sense of timing -- why run the story at a time when, if McCain were to drop out, the Republicans would have months to find and coalesce around a new nominee?
What this really looks like is a case of good old-fashioned journalistic competition. Other publications were reportedly working on tracking down the story. And as the McCain campaign has been quick to point out, the New Republic has been working on a story about the story, dealing with purported infighting at the Times about whether to run the article. Mark Salter told Time's Ana Marie Cox, "They did this because the New Republic was going to run a story that looked back at the infighting there ... the Judy Miller-type power struggles -- they decided that they would rather smear McCain than suffer a story that made the New York Times newsroom look bad."
And TNR has indeed been working on an article, it confirmed Wednesday night. In a blog post, the magazine's Noam Scheiber wrote, "The McCain campaign is apparently blaming TNR for forcing the Times' hand on this story. We can't yet confirm that. But we can say this: TNR correspondent Gabe Sherman is working on a piece about the Times' foot-dragging on the McCain story, and the back-and-forth within the paper about whether to publish it. Gabe's story will be online tomorrow."
Update: I did an appearance on WNYC's Brian Lehrer Show this morning, and said during it that when it came to conservative talk show hosts who'd been bashing McCain during the primaries, the question would be who they hate more, McCain or the Times. I won't take too much credit for being correct in predicting that they'd take McCain's side over the Times', as it was fairly obvious.
In an e-mail to the Politico, Rush Limbaugh, perhaps the most important figure among the conservative talkers, weighed in on the issue. He wrote:
The story is not the story. The story is the Drive By media turning on its favorite maverick and trying to take him out. The media picked the GOP's candidate, the NYT endorsed him while they sat on this story, and is now, with utter predictability, trying to destroy him. ...
This is what you get when you walk across the aisle and try to make these people your friends. I'm not surprised in the least that the NYT would try to take out John McCain. Predicted this, in fact, way back in the early 2000s. Sen. McCain courted the media, cultivated them, even bragged that the media was his 'base.' I cringed when I heard it because the media turning on McCain was as predictable as the sun rising in the morning.