The John McCain-Vicki Iseman story is not the first article the New York Times has held back for political reasons. They have now done this on at least three occasions:
1. The original FISA story on how the Bush administration was not getting warrants for wiretaps inside the United States.
2. The original story in 2004 that showed Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan, not Afghanistan.
3. The McCain-Iseman story.
We had James Risen, the writer of the first two stories on our show back in 2005 and he admitted that they held the Bin Laden story until after the 2004 election because the New York Times didn't want to "get caught up in the politics of it." (You can listen to the whole Jim Risen interview here.)
Another way of stating that is that they were afraid of being called the liberal media by Republicans. After decades of being chastised for being liberal, they have become gun-shy. In this McCain story, they also held off until they were about to outed by other news agencies as sitting on the story.
Conservatives are now charging that the New York Times held off on the story until after McCain had wrapped up the nomination, so they could ruin his chances in the general election. First, this is wrong because if they wanted to hurt his chances of getting elected, they would have revealed this fact much closer to the general election. They couldn't have done McCain a bigger favor than by waiting to release the piece until after the primaries and way, way before the general.
Since they endorsed McCain in January despite knowing this story -- and the clear implications of hypocrisy on campaign finance reform, let alone the other implications -- the most likely conspiracy would be that they favor McCain in the election. But I don't think there is a conspiracy.
I think the far simpler answer is the correct one. The McCain campaign threatened and intimidated them as the Bush team has done on countless occasions and they gave in until someone else was about to release the story. The only thing worse than being bullied by Republicans is getting scooped by your competitors.
The story here isn't that the NYT is trying to hurt conservatives, it's the exact opposite -- they're afraid of them. On every occasion that they have had a major story like this, they have held it after being badgered by Republicans. They only print the stories when there are no other options left and the story is about to get printed elsewhere anyway.
In the end, the concerns Jim Risen expressed to us about politicizing these stories are ironically counterproductive. When any paper holds a story because of political pressure, they are politicizing the story. The only way to avoid making this type of political decision, by commission or omission, is to print the story when you have it.
Now the New York Times has gotten itself in the same old pickle they always do -- they are going to be criticized by Republicans when in fact they were trying to be extra fair to Republicans. What they don't get is that the conservatives view them as the enemy; they are never going to be appeased. So, do us all a favor and just print the damn story when you have it.