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Times criticized, defended over McCain story

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  • NEW: John McCain's lawyer blasts The New York Times report on lobbying controversy
  • McCain aide calls article a "smear campaign" based on "false rumors and gossip"
  • Times editor says "the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction"
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The New York Times was criticized Thursday not only for claims in a story about Sen. John McCain's relationship with a lobbyist but also for its use of unnamed sources.

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Sen. John McCain's campaign calls a New York Times article "false rumors and gossip."

The newspaper reported on its Web site Wednesday and in its print edition Thursday that aides to McCain's 2000 presidential campaign were so worried about the relationship they confronted McCain and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman.

Also, some McCain advisers were concerned the relationship had become romantic, the newspaper reported.

McCain's senior campaign adviser, Charlie Black, called the newspaper's report "a smear campaign."

"Look, this is a simple case of the largest liberal newspaper in America trying to run a smear campaign against the integrity of the new conservative Republican nominee for president," he said.

"They do it by printing false rumors and gossip unsourced," Black said. Video Watch Black fault the Times »

McCain's lawyer, Robert Bennett, attacked the premise of the story.

"I think they went with the story before they had the evidence," Bennett said during an appearance on CNN. "If you really analyze the story it's like a big piece of cotton candy. You bite into it and there's not much there."

On Thursday, McCain denied having a close relationship with Iseman and said he was "very disappointed in The New York Times piece, it's not true." Video Watch McCain deny the paper's claims »

The Times issued a statement Thursday saying it stands by its reporting and that "the story speaks for itself."

"We publish stories when they are ready," Executive Editor Bill Keller said in a statement Thursday. " 'Ready' means the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction, the subjects have all been given a full and fair chance to respond and the reporting has been written up with all the proper context and caveats.

"This story was no exception. It was a long time in the works."

The paper used one named source -- former chief McCain campaign strategist John Weaver -- who said he confronted Iseman and told her to stay away from the senator.

Weaver served in the same role in McCain's 2000 presidential campaign.

Weaver and others resigned from McCain's campaign last July as it was running out of money and foundering in polls before McCain surged to the top of the GOP field with wins in earlier nominating contests this year.

The unnamed sources included "a former campaign adviser" and "two former McCain associates."

Most news organizations, CNN included, have policies on the use of unnamed sources and use them sparingly and only when necessary.

While saying unnamed sources have "been used since Watergate," Howard Kurtz, a host of CNN's "Reliable Sources" and a media critic for the Washington Post, said Thursday that anonymous sources "are way overused and abused in journalism."

"The story does rely on two former associates and obviously when you put a controversial, disputed story out there about a presidential candidate without names attached, you often incite the kind of criticism that The New York Times is receiving this morning," Kurtz said.

Kurtz noted, in the interest of full disclosure, his paper also cited unnamed sources several times in its story on the relationship between McCain and Iseman Thursday morning.

Kurtz, however, said he feels the article was legitimate, given McCain's hard-line stance on the influence of lobbyists in politics.

"John McCain, though, I think it is fair for journalists to hold him to a higher standard because he holds himself to a higher standard as chief proponent of campaign finance reform," he said.

Republican strategist Amy Holmes blasted the paper for publishing what she calls "pure innuendo, pure speculation."

"The New York Times wanted to be first rather than right and this morning John McCain gave a very definitive response ... and even said 'no' to the crux of this story," Holmes said.

Others, including political commentator Bill Press, said there is some weight to the Times' article.

"I've heard nobody refuting the facts in this case," Press said. "The problem is John McCain has put himself on the pedestal. ... He has said 'I'm different than everybody else, I don't do favors for lobbyists, I don't like lobbyists.' "

Media critic Jack Shaffer, writing on Slate.com, echoed that sentiment and said the article shouldn't be completely condemned.

"That the imperfect Times article doesn't expose a raging blaze isn't sufficient cause for condemning it," Shaffer added. "The evidence the paper provides more than adequately establishes that McCain remains a better preacher about ethics, standards, appearances, and special interest conflicts than he is a practitioner, something voters should consider before punching the ballot for him."

But could the article actually help McCain with the conservative base, who has had a difficult time rallying around the Arizona senator?

Politico.com's Jonathan Martin believes it could.

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"There is no bigger boogeyman in the media constellation than The New York Times," Martin said. "Conservatives may not like John McCain ... but they hate The New York Times much more ... the McCain campaign is exploiting that for everything it's worth."

That's something that could help McCain as he continues to try and win over the conservative base as the next round of contests come up. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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