Democratic debate, Snow on the way...

Behind The News
February 21, 2008 12:32:50 PM PST
Well today the public is beginning to get a good, hard look at how sausage is made -- the sausage in this case being news. And the news media in this case being The New York Times, the most respected newspaper in the world and the so-called paper of record in the U.S. Think about your own workplace, and how decisions are made - raw conversations, cold calculations, personal slights, high drama and high emotion -- they all play into it at some point and to some degree.

Most people would never want all that made public.

But when your sausage is news, and it's all for public dissemination, then what you say behind closed doors sometimes isn't so private.

And so now The Times is in the spotlight after its front-page story today on John McCain -- and whether his personal relationship with a female Washington lobbyist compromised his ethics. She represented clients who had business with the Senate committee McCain helped lead.

McCain today -- denying that he had a romantic relationship with the lobbyist, an uncomfortable moment at best, what with McCain's wife by his side. And someone's personal and sexual life just shouldn't be part of any campaign - unless it raises questions about their ethics.

Which is why, as unsavory as it might seem, the story is a story.

The back story, however, may also be a story. Why did The Times not run this story when it first had it, back in December? Rumors abounded that the paper was working on this story back then, but it didn't run. Did the paper not have it sourced enough? Perhaps. Did The Times hold the story because it had endorsed McCain on its editorial pages and running it before the primaries might have hurt his chances to win the nomination? Hard to imagine the respected journalists who run the paper's news sections would think like that.

But clearly McCain was worried enough that he hired big-time criminal attorney Bob Bennett -- brother of conservative columnist and Republican strategist Bill Bennett -- to meet with The Times reporters in December and "defend" McCain against the allegations The Times was investigating.

Today, The New Republic published online a story it's been working on for some time: why The Times was holding the story. It is, for those interested, a fascinating look at the sausage-making process; an examination of what makes a story, and when reporters satisfy an editor's tough questions. And it doesn't seem to be a coincidence that one of the reporters on the story - who joined The Times from the Washington Post last year -- quit The Times last week and returned to the Post. She reportedly was frustrated because the story hadn't run.

There is much debate about whether The Times should have gone with the story. We are not going to debate that on our 11 p.m. newscast; what matters to the viewers, we think, is the impact on the McCain campaign. Will conservatives, who have been skeptical about the presumptive Republican nominee, now rally behind him? There are many who think they might. We'll see.

Will McCain's record now come under closer scrutiny? Perhaps. Will the other candidates make an issue of the allegations in The Times? Don't count on it, although the folks who worked for Mitt Romney must be pounding their fists on the table and asking why this story didn't come out before the primaries. It likely would have helped Romney, they could argue.

We'll have the latest on the allegations, tonight at 11.

We're also covering a debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, tonight in Texas. Sen. Clinton needs to win the Texas primary on March 4; if she doesn't, her husband said yesterday, her chances of winning the nomination are likely over. Was this Bill Clinton's way of exhorting voters? Maybe. But it was nonetheless a dire prediction.

The latest ABC News poll, released tonight, shows that Clinton and Obama are virtually tied in Texas, with Clinton holding a slim lead in Ohio.

Our political editor Dave Evans is covering the debate for us tonight, at 11.

And as long as we're talking behind the scenes -- I should say that we had long discussions last night about how to cover The Times story, which first appeared earlier in the evening on its website. They were honest, sometimes heated. But once McCain issued his statement, the arguments against running the story became moot. McCain himself insured this was a story.

The arguments for running it -- without our without McCain's statement - were based in no small part on the fact that it was The Times that went with the story. These may not be the best of times for the newspaper, but it is still The Times, and its coverage of this story cannot be ignored. (That McCain issued a statement proves the point, I think.) The Times running the story ensures that it's "in play" in the dialogue about the Presidential campaign.

It would have been hard to ignore.

Exhibit A is The National Enquirer's coverage of some sordid issues involving the John Edwards campaign. Don't know what I'm talking about? That's my point. No one covered the rumors, which turned out apparently not to be true.

Would love to know what you think about all the brouhaha. As always, please email me at Bill.S.Ritter@ABC.Com, and let me know if I can use your name.

Oh, one more item: the Republicans jumped all over The Times story; they quickly sent out an email asking for donations in light of The Times' proving "once again that the liberal mainstream media will do whatever it takes to put Senator Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama in the White House."

Ain't politics grand?

Weather is making news tonight -- a winter storm is arriving. Lee Goldberg has the latest in his AccuWeather forecast.

Also at 11 tonight, we're following the latest developments in Belgrade, where Serbs attacked and set fire to the U.S. Embassy, to protest the United States' recognizing Kosovo as an independent nation.

And our investigative reporter, Sarah Wallace, tonight has the story of a young man who nearly lost his eye after he was arrested for a graffiti violation in the Bronx. Police say he "incurred" the injury while trying to run away from them. It's a riveting story.

We'll also have any breaking news of the night, plus Scott Clark and Marvell Scott with the night's sports. I hope you can join Liz Cho and me, tonight at 11.

BILL RITTER


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