Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

February 21, 2008

New D.C. Insider Rumor is About…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 7:36 am

This is the January 14 revise of a January 2 post I decided not to run (either version). The dates can be verified from the time stamps on the original unpublished drafts in the internal records of the blog. I hesitated posting it when I first drafted it on January 2, because of the complexity of the rationale for the story, of writing about rumors, in general. My point has always been that DC based campaign reporters too often allow unpublished rumors to affect what they actually publish about a candidate. But to make that point you have to allude to the rumors and perhaps give them more weight than they deserve. I thought about it again on January 14 and did another draft, the one you see below. I still felt conflicted about it, consulted a friend who suggested the problems in writing about rumors outweighed the value. And so I left it unposted. Now that the Times has published at least part of the rumor–and I’m not yet ready to make a judgment about the wisdom of that decision–I post it because the questions it raises–particularly about insiderism and timing–are still valid.

And because–on balance–I’m still satisfied with my decision not to run it at the time. And because I happen to know there are more such rumors still out there and we need to find a way to think about how to handle them.

Here’s the January 14 version with the original title, only the date stamp changed (because if I didn’t it would be buried back amidst the January posts). I’ll enable comments but only post intelligent reflections on the journalistic questions raised, not partisan venom:

Think of this as another anthropological report on the culture of DC media insider rumorology.

Washington insiders are like a small Stone Age tribe who trade reputed inside knowledge they can’t print like shiny beads to advance their prestige and self esteem.

I think some people don’t quite get that when I report on D.C. insider rumors I do so as anthropologist. Which is why some misinterpreted my November 30 report here that the L.A. Times was sitting on a sex scandal involving a Presidential candidate. I wasn’t asserting the L.A. Times did, in fact have such a story, but rather that from a single visit to DC I learned of three separate “insiders” from bigtime publications who said that they had heard something to that effect.

It’s my belief that the trade in unsubstantiated rumors that may well affect coverage of candidates unbeknownst to readers of these publications deserves to be exposed. I believe that the public deserves to be informed what the people who control the flow of information about who will rule us are really thinking when they write about certain candidates.

And so I’m back from DC with another insider rumor, I heard two nights in row from different sources.

This one has to do with the alleged scandal involving John McCain, a female lobbyist and and a favor involving a special provision of an FCC bill.

You might recall the story surfaced briefly on Drudge in the form of a report that McCain had hired lawyers to try to stop the New York Times from running the story. And then…silence.

Did the lawyers cause the Times to back off? What I was told by a reporter for a prominent DC daily, rival to the Times, was that the story was bigger than a single female lobbyist and an FCC favor. That it was being held in part because it was too hot to handle. At the time I was told (back around New Year’s Eve) McCain’s campaign was still stuck in the doldrums after having cratered over the summer. Was the putative story held because it seemed about a candidacy going nowhere. Now that he’s suddenly back on top will it reappear. or was there never anything to it?

So what I want to know is: was there anything to the story? Did the Times hold it because they thought McCain was going nowhere? Will they revive it now? Was I being spun by a Times rival? It’s something I believe except the other source was not in the media business, but claimed to have worked with McCain.

Anybody have any theories? For anthropological purposes only.

Update/correction: the original controversial post on a DC rumor was posted here on Oct. 29, not Nov. 30 as written from memory in the draft above.



  1. Your original post about the purported L.A. Times story, just for the record, seems to have been October 29, not November 30.

    If I may ask, when you say “there are more such rumors out there,” do you mean in connection with the McCain story–you go on to suggest there’s a lot more to it than has come out–or more rumors about other candidates?

    Do you think Huckabee’s staying in the race, and Romney’s “suspending” his campaign rather than withdrawing entirely, may reflect their foreknowledge of the McCain story–more than what Drudge reported back in December about the NYTimes lobbyist-favors investigation? Would they also know about the “too hot to handle” aspects that haven’t come out yet?

    In other words, is the rumor-mongering something that just affects how journalists write about the candidates, or does it also affect the candidates’ decisions about how to conduct their campaigns?

    I’ve already corrected the date but thanks. in answer to your last question:I don’t now but I imagine they have fairly good intelligence networks; how much and which rumors affect their actions is something we may never know for sure. In answer to the first question I don’t know whether there actually is “more”. i don’t know whether the Times proved conclusively what they suggested; the fact that the rumors suggested more may have been a result of the Times multiple inquiries for all I know, which may have created the false rumor-mill impression there was more.

    Comment by Swift Loris — February 21, 2008 @ 10:08 am | Reply

  2. There are now major sexual and/or drug rumors circulating on the net about all three major candidates. As someone who has worked on four Democratic Presidential campaigns and spent 25 years in Democratic party politics, I can testify that the stress of trying to please the public and beg for their votes would cause anyone to engage in so-called “deviant behavior”. Joining a campaign is like joining the circus or going on a film location: the ingroup dynamic invites experimentation, especially between and among candidates and their followers. Just look at some of the least likely lovelorn obsessions: Eisenhower with Kay Summersby, Nixon’s love letters to a woman in China, George H.W. Bush’s eyeing singer Vicki Carr, Missy LeHand committing suicide right after the death of FDR, Woodrow Wlison’s strange New York City meetings with Colonel House, LBJ and Barbara Howar (as well as a certain female historian), the despair of Betty Ford at her husband’s “long stays away from home”. The only ones whom you can’t stick anything to, at least during their political careers, are Reagan, Carter and young Bush. I rest my case!!

    Comment by charlie finch — February 21, 2008 @ 10:10 am | Reply

  3. back when the original story appeared on Drudge and even before them, it was predicted by many on the right that once McCain secured the nomination, the left leaning media would turn on him. I don’t know if this is the case, but it certainly seems fishy.
    for me, the story doesn’t hold because the sources are all anonymous and a romatc affair is only alluded to, with no real facts. everything about it is based in rumor and much of it concerns allegations 20 years old.
    whether there is anything more to the story, it doesn’t meet the journalistic requirements often necessary for the Times. I say often, because I believe the NYTimes has been slipping journalistically for some time now. most recently with there scare mongoring behind the mercury levels in NY sushi and, more importantly, the percentage of violent crimes committed by soldiers returning from Iraq.
    A story like this could have been run if it involved Bill Clinton, because of his questionable and substantiated history with women who are not his wife. But to try to bring down McCain and destroy his character with nothing but rumor and only anonymous sources doesn’t feel right. The piece reads very tabloidy, which is probably not a word.

    Comment by Bryan Veronneau — February 21, 2008 @ 11:18 am | Reply

  4. Could McCain have planted the story to get past the chatter that he is too old to be president. Go ahead. Say “frisky.”

    While I am no match for your proven omniscience, I predict many such tales about everyone in the presidential race.

    For prurient interest only.

    Comment by Mark Van Wagoner — February 21, 2008 @ 12:45 pm | Reply

  5. As someone who joined in the linkfest to your November 30 story, I think the first question you’ll be hit with is — were they the same rumor? That is, was the rumored LAT story about John McCain? Or about someone else?

    From the tone of today’s piece I’m guessing they were different, but clarification would be appreciated.

    From an anthropological perspective, watching MSNBC’s coverage this morning was fascinating.

    Well, reluctant as I am to get into a guessing game, I meant it to be evident that the McCain rumor was different from the one I originally reported on–actually (I’ve corrected it on the site)–on October 29

    Comment by David — February 21, 2008 @ 1:16 pm | Reply

  6. I’ve been watching this drama play out today on the national news and it appears that quarter 1 has the conservatives and John McCain in the lead. They have handled this furor very well in placing focus on the liberal rag New York Times.
    I would wager that at least one of your sources emanates from Marilyn Thompson who has now left the Times and is returning to the Wash Post. I hope she was able to take some of her research with her.
    To go to the ethical portion of the report dealing with the FCC, I would like to see in print the actual provision that aided a client of her firm and who that client was. I could care not if McCain strayed with an attractive lobbyist who was 1/2 his age except that it does open the door to blackmail or other favors. The fact that the fund raiser in Miami where they were together and the second demanding letter to the FCC to act on a long overdue decision the very next day does raise questions of ethics. No one can deny the factual basis of this party and the letter the following day after they returned from Miami. These facts lead to more questions about other favors like why he is still helping to hide over 750,000 pages of investigation related to the Abramoff investigation with the help of the DOJ.

    Comment by Larry Matthews — February 21, 2008 @ 1:42 pm | Reply

  7. Check out the AP story, “Is Obama’s Love Affair with the Media Ending?”, textbook example of the Rosenbaum Principle of Media Uncertainty, i.e. “something’s coming”

    Comment by charlie finch — February 21, 2008 @ 4:57 pm | Reply

  8. If I have it right, the Talmud enjoins a person not to gossip because the person gossiped about might kill themselves. For that reason, the words of an English aristocrat, “Publish and be damned” comes to mind.

    Comment by michael — February 21, 2008 @ 7:42 pm | Reply

  9. Just wondering if this rumor you are writing about involves a Democratic Presidential Candidate and accusations made on youtube. If so, it appears the LAT and the Washington Media are not the only ones sitting on it. A lot of small market media is too.
    Even us little media folk require multiple sources before publishing stories.

    I understand the curiosity. I just don’t want to play 20 questions, which would ultimately lead to revealing something, I’ve decided I’d rather not reveal at this time.

    Comment by small market — February 22, 2008 @ 2:20 am | Reply

  10. What? You didn’t like my snarky post?

    I posted it, sorry I’ve fallen behind. I do have a life outside the blog.

    Comment by Mark Van Wagoner — February 22, 2008 @ 6:27 pm | Reply

  11. You don’t need a complex model for this story:

    Guys (and gals) who have a history of cheating on their spouse have a habit of continuing that behavior throughout their life.

    Comment by Rick — February 22, 2008 @ 6:29 pm | Reply

  12. Oh,geeez,why the heck do you think they sat on it,huh?

    To damage McCain once it was fairly clear that he would be getting the nomination, otherwise, the GOP voters may have chosen a more formidable opponent for Obama, THAT IS WHY .

    Comment by dustwitch — February 22, 2008 @ 8:12 pm | Reply

  13. Ron

    [By the way, read Shakespeare 2x in the month after it came out–bought it trade too. Happy to let you work your obsession so I can indulge mine of reading abut S. {I’m deeply appreciative of Vendler’s SONNETS analysis, too.}]

    As to journo & history–not anthro as its not my discipline & its all absorbed by a good historian anyway–there is never a good time for a badly conceived and badly executed story, as with the NYT on McCain & affair rumors. See also 2/21 frontpager on NFL & Pats & “cheating” which (1) misses completely the competitive edginess in the profession, (2) misses completely what the quarterback, in this case Brady, is ALWAYS doing, and (3) misses compltely that any so-called new allegation is not new to Goodell who already knows Belichick was doing all from 2000 and has already taken it into account–or at least they could have asked Goodell that, but no! Having this story entirely written by non-sports people means it had no context and so they got to assuming things and those things were wrong. Which suggsts, sociologically, that professionals WITHIN the Great Grey Lady are too compartmentalized with specialities. Maybe they should all take to getting drunk together at the nearest saloon after the PM re-write so as to foster cooperation.

    The same problem occurs with the McCain story and likely afflicts what you called the LAT prez spousal sex scandal from the fall. (I take it these are not the same?) The STORY re McCain is not the sex, which if true is the lead hook, yes, but is really the icing on the cake. It is, as headlined today over at Huffington, “McCain campaign being run by lobbyists.” Or “McCain Repeats Keating Five Blunders”. Which gets at “McCain shows lack of judgement” etc. And that continued lack of judgement is epitomized with the confirmed (two aides sourced & NOT denied by Bob Bennett) that he was acting “inappropriately” in 1999-2000 with the Iseman woman. THAT story is just a building block in the overall story of cronyism and special favors, but THAT KEY STORY the Times buried or really did not address in a new way to catch the readers attention in an “Aha!” moment. And Bill Keller takes the readers to task? [cf NYDN online article 2/23] HUH? Oh, where’s Abe Rosenthal or even Punch when ya need ’em.

    As to the ethics of the Prez Spouse Sex Story that those “in the know” haven’t moved on. Dammit, TWO SOURCE it and run with it early. By sitting on it even if sourced, its abetting a “coverup”, and the “coverup” is always worse than the “crime”. Which means, print it when its fully sourced, but NOT a moment before, and that WHEN comes when it comes, whether early in a primary season, midway or after the last primaries. We are well past, I had hoped, Beltway media FDR/JFK cronyism. I had hoped.

    But “rumour” rides before all, and itself is a coin within any organization and profession. Yet when “sourced” it is no longer rumor, but “Story” and so can be publicly told in print.

    Comment by Robert M. — February 23, 2008 @ 11:08 am | Reply

  14. I’ll prefer the media to tell me the whole verifiable truth.
    I’d say that a sentence like “At the time, his staff worried that the relationship was either adulterous, or might be persieved as such, should it come to public attention. In a meeting on march 5, they decided to…” is permissible.
    Leave it up to the american people to weigh the information and decide what to think and do with it.
    BTW; I’m Danish. So it’s not really my horse race, but I care a lot anyway.

    Comment by Ulla Lauridsen — February 23, 2008 @ 12:43 pm | Reply

  15. Perhaps it is worth reflecting on Franklin Roosevelt as a template for Presidential “scandal”. He was chosen in 1920 as the VP candidate because his name was Roosevelt and because he was a “dry” (pro-Prohibition). He served one term as Governor of New York , when said term was two years. Many are familiar with the “coverup” of FDR’s crippled state (the most hearfelt passages in FDR’s biography are his lifelong relations with the poliostricken denizens of Warm Springs). What has never been resolved is whether or not FDR remained potent or impotent after being bit by polio. In the evident jealousy of Eleanor towards Lucy Mercer Rutherfurd and Missy LeHand, under the mores of the time, perhaps it doesn’t matter. FDR ran his White House like a hippie commune: Harry Hopkins lived there, as did, periodically, other New Deal braintrusters. Every day at 5 PM, Roosevelt, the ex-dry would serve a few shaker of martinis to whomever was living at the White House at the time. Not only was Eleanor perceived as having same sex affection for her pal “Hick” and others. but the Army wiretapped her hotel room in Chicago, because it feared that Eleanor was having an affair with Army Sergeant (and future Roosevelt biographer) Joe Lash. FDR drove the press with the whiphand, famously ridiculing HL Mencken at a Gridiron Dinner by reading a speech which acidly attacked journalists, that turned out to actually be one of Mencken’s own articles! The press was not so much complicit in FDR’s reign (many attacked and detested him) as dominated by a protean figure. FDR even had the balls to host a toga party at the White House in which he dressed as Caesar. The problem with our political culture nowadays is that everyone is too timid, because they fear the public; subconsciously they know that the sans-culottes could (and should) strip them of their insider privileges. A sensible opponent, replying to Hillary’s mantra that she would be “ready on Day One”, would respond, a la FDR, “that anyone who pays Mark Penn $10 million and drops $100,000 on one deli in Iowa won’t be ready on Day 1000”, but Obama can’t do that because of the media backlash to such a comment. Hence, he leaves an opening for Hillary to manufacture an Obama scandal in the very long six months ’til Denver. I believe, based on experience, that Hillary’s people drove the McCain story as a test, a cat’s paw, for a much bigger Obama leak. A rule of thumb, a Kinsley corollary, is that a candidate will admity to 10% of what has happened, deviance-wise, in his or her life. (Apply this to Nixon, JFK, LBJ, Clintons in terms of the whole of their admitted public confessions). Barack has written that he did pot and toot during his younger days. Go ahead, do the math; Hillary is.

    Comment by charlie finch — February 23, 2008 @ 5:46 pm | Reply

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