They got a tip in November, threw four reporters at it, couldn’t substantiate the affair with anything sturdier than hearsay, then dithered about whether to spike it or toss it out there. The compromise solution: Bury it at the end of a long rehash of McCain’s involvement with the Keating Five, to give it some heft by association.

So lame is the story, and so heavy the backlash among conservatives — but not exclusively conservatives — that they probably ended up doing Maverick a favor by running it.

[W]hat’s most remarkable about the article is that it appeared in the paper at all: the new information it reveals focuses on the private matters of the candidate, and relies entirely on the anecdotal evidence of McCain’s former staffers to justify the piece–both personal and anecdotal elements unusual in the Gray Lady. The story is filled with awkward journalistic moves–the piece contains a collection of decade-old stories of McCain and Iseman appearing at functions together and concerns voiced by McCain’s aides that the Senator shouldn’t be seen in public with Iseman – and departs from the Times usual authoritative voice. At one point, the piece suggestively states: “In 1999 she began showing up so frequently in his offices and at campaign events that staff members took notice. One recalled asking, ‘Why is she always around?'” In the absence of concrete, printable proof that McCain and Iseman were an item, the piece delicately steps around purported romance and instead reports on the debate within the McCain campaign about the alleged affair…

In late December, according to Times sources, Keller told the reporters and the story’s editor, Rebecca Corbett, that he was holding the piece in part because they could not secure documentary proof of the alleged affair beyond anecdotal evidence. Keller felt that given the on-the-record-denials by McCain and Iseman, the reporters needed more than the circumstantial evidence they had assembled to prove the case. The reporters felt they had the goods.

“Why is she always around?” evidently constituting “the goods.” Consider this a variation on “fake but accurate,” where instead of using bogus evidence to support a story you believe to be true, you use possibly bogus evidence to support a story you believe to be possibly true. The product is the same; you’re just weighting the variables slightly differently.

It’s a five-minute read so dig in, pausing occasionally as you go to savor the irony of TNR scolding another publication for not being diligent enough in its fact-checking. Exit question: Who tipped the Times to this in November?

Update: Even TPM is underwhelmed. Although among lefties having Maverick’s back, this takes the cake:

Lanny Davis, a former special adviser to President Clinton and longtime Democratic activist, challenged reports today that Sen. John McCain may have done a favor for a female lobbyist, calling them meritless.

Mr. Davis said the likely Republican presidential nominee did not “yield to a lobbyist” and backed up Mr. McCain’s account that the senator only wrote to the Federal Communication Commission in a routine letter that did not cross the lines of propriety…

Mr. Davis, who emphasized he doesn’t support the Arizona senator’s bid, was also lobbying on the same deal [as Vicky Iseman].

“It is sad and unfortunate that facts are not included to make a fair story and that good journalism rules were not followed,” Mr. Davis said. “I am unhappy. I am sad that McCain’s actions are being described as improper when we went beyond the pale to avoid looking like he was violating an FCC rule.”…

During the Post interview, Mr. Davis reminded the reporter that he had already made a statement to the paper in 2000 which cleared the senator of wrongdoing. The statement was not included in today’s story which paints a damning picture of Mr. McCain’s activities.

The Times never contacted him at all, Mr. Davis said. He said he was troubled by today’s accusations.

Tags: Arizona