TNR ON L’AFFAIR McCAIN….Gabriel Sherman’s TNR piece about the internal struggles at the New York Times over publication of last night’s story about John McCain’s non-affair with telecom lobbyist Vicki Iseman is now up:

The publication of the article capped three months of intense internal deliberations at the Times over whether to publish the negative piece and its most explosive charge about the affair. It pitted the reporters investigating the story, who believed they had nailed it, against executive editor Bill Keller, who believed they hadn’t.

….By late December, the reporters had submitted several pages of written questions to [McCain lawyer Bob] Bennett for comment, and completed a draft of the piece before the New Year. But to their growing frustration, Keller ordered rounds of changes and additional reporting. According to Times sources, [Washington bureau chief Dean] Baquet remained an advocate for his reporters and pushed the piece to be published, but sources say Keller wanted a more nuanced story looking less at personal matters and more at questions of Iseman’s lobbying and McCain’s legislative record.

….In mid-January, Keller told the reporters to significantly recast the piece after several drafts had circulated among editors in Washington and New York. After three different versions, the piece ended up not as a stand-alone investigation but as an entry in the paper’s “The Long Run” series looking at presidential candidates’ career histories.

If anything, this makes the whole episode even more puzzling. The four reporters on this piece thought they had “nailed it”? Reasonable people can differ on whether they had enough to hang a story on, but there’s no way that they “nailed” anything. And what made Keller change his mind? Adding a couple thousand words about the lobbying aspect of this episode did exactly nothing to take attention away from the bombshell innuendo that McCain was having an “inappropriate” relationship with Vicki Iseman — and the reporting on that central assertion doesn’t seem to have changed much since late December.

Mysteriouser and mysteriouser. Sometimes stories like this get printed in hopes that they’ll kick over some stones and prompt other sources to come forward, and maybe that’s what happened here. Stay tuned.