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The mainstream media's love affair with John McCain

You know, I always wondered what the key was to John McCain’s success in keeping the media hounds at bay. After all, he’s not exactly a scandal-free politician – from the Keating Five S&L scandal, the quickly dropped murky business and personal relationship to lobbyist Vicki Iseman, to his nose-thumbing at the Federal Election Commission’s public financing spending limit this year. The media doesn’t question  McCain’s carefully crafted illusion that he is a moderate maverick inside the Beltway, rarely citing any issues outside of the McCain-Feingold campaign reform act to bolster the Arizona senator’s claim.

The curious treatment of McCain by the MSM is explored in Free Ride: John McCain and the Media, by David Brock and Paul Waldman of Media Matters. What the presumptive GOP nominee has learned is how to crack the code of buddying up with reporters to ensure soft treatment. The formula is quite simple, actually. See below the fold.

* Exploiting his Vietnam-era POW status. Of course the man is a war hero. That’s not a question. Most politicians with military experience tout it (see John Kerry for the most recent example – and look at how he was Swiftboated by the Right to counter it). In McCain’s case, his frequent mention of his time in captivity, either on the stump, in commercials, or in this case, in banter with reporters, it is used as a blunt instrument to shame many reporters, many who didn’t serve in the military, into silence.

One of the interesting charts in Free Ride shows the number of mentions in the MSM that pairs McCain with some variation of his wartime experience, even when the subject has nothing to do with the military.

* Campaign finance reform.  The effort to kill the unchecked flow of soft money in politics is the cornerstone of the “maverick” mantle that he capitalizes on today, even as McCain’s voting record is otherwise solidly conservative.

* Knowing how to suck up to reporters. This is the one aspect of McCain’s success that is the most troubling when you read Free Ride. Not because of anything McCain himself does — who wouldn’t want to win over the press — but how easily the so-called objective press caves when they feel treated as part of some political inner circle. So much for ethics. From the book:

[T]he Straight Talk Express had a jovial, locker-room atmosphere, complete with free-flowing booze and plenty of swearing on the candidate’s part. “After a day or two of this sort of thing,” [Tucker] Carlson wrote, “the average journalist inevitably concluded that John McCain was about the coolest guy who ever ran for president…I saw reporters call McCain ‘John,’ sometimes even to his face and in public. I heard others, usually at night in the hotel bar, slip into the habit of referring to the McCain campaign as ‘we’ — as in, “I hope we kill Bush.” It was wrong but hard to resist.”

OK. If holding chummy barbecues for the press and throwing a beer back with them is what “journalism” is about, perhaps they should teach a course on that in J-school.

Take a look at this example of how the MSM gave McCain a wide berth during the primaries, particularly when his campaign was on life support. How many candidates would have garnered this kind of glowing praise after a fourth-place finish in Iowa? Brock and Waldman give you an idea of how blinded by love these talking heads are:

Before the 2008 Iowa caucus, commentators gave McCain as low a bar as one could imagine. “The big story could be if McCain comes in a respectable third,” said Linda Douglass of the National Journal. Chris Matthews predicted McCain would win 18 percent, and said such a showing would make McCain “a big hero.” “Anything north of 15 percent Thursday will get played up big by the media and lead to front-runner coverage once he sets foot in New Hampshire again,” wrote Chuck Todd, the political director of NBC News.

It was left to Matthews, as usual the most starry-eyed of McCain’s media fans, to wax poetic. “Ladies and gentlemen, there’s something real here, courage to endure repeated disappointment, unexpected failure, shattering defeat,” he said on Hardball the night before the caucus. “That’s what people respected in Britain’s Winston Churchill, and it’s so much who John McCain is this second and final run for the presidency. There’s something genuine here, something selfless, even quietly grand in his campaign.”

But Todd realized what was beginning to happen. “You know, I hate to be existential here, but you know, the media — and I say this as if I’m not a member of it — but the media does seem to be ready to will John McCain out of Iowa,” he said in response to Matthews. “It is a stunning thing. And if I were Mitt Romney or Giuliani or Mike Huckabee, I’d be like, ‘Wait a minute! You’re going to take a third place finish and somehow use that to catapult this guy, [give him] free media, and get him the victory in New Hampshire?’ But frankly, that is what’s going to happen. There’s a reason John McCain is sort of the king of sort of working the media.”

Todd did get one thing wrong: McCain ended up coming in fourth in Iowa, not third. And he only received 13 percent of the vote, less than what had been predicted. So how did the press react?

By declaring him the victor. “This is a fantastic night for John McCain,” said Mike Allen of the Politico. “This could not have been conceivably a better result for McCain,” said Fred Barnes on Fox News. “This is very good news for John McCain,” declared Tom Brokaw. Ignoring the Republicans who came in first, second, and third in Iowa, Tim Russert immediately booked McCain for a coveted interview on that Sunday’s Meet the Press.

When McCain won the New Hampshire primary the following Tuesday, commentators did not simply offer praise. Instead, they talked about the victory as though it were somehow a realization of electoral justice, the true John McCain returning and being rightly rewarded by the voters. Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek, went on the air to echo what he had written a week before: “The apparent reconsideration of the candidacy of John McCain is good news for all of us, whatever our politics, for McCain has proved in the campaign what he proved in Vietnam: that patience is a virtue, and, when in doubt, principle is worth a try.”

What I find fascinating is that no current pol has managed to “break the code” in seducing the media so wholly and completely. George Bush, probably comes close in some ways, but I can’t imagine the reporters on the bus didn’t see that Shrub had anything but a dim bulb up there. What he did have, ultimately, is that he was able to successfully approximate the valued “authenticity” of the everyman that is key to today’s political environment, despite being from a privileged background.

McCain has played it from all angles, based on the political need at hand — he’s managed to grease the wheels of the machine with the image of the everyman, the insider and the maverick rolled up into one, and strategically  sidles up to reporters and the media intelligentsia — and the sad truth is they apparently like being played to boost their own egos and protect their access.


An aside — you have to wonder whether it is possible to elect a man or woman from a privileged, patrician background at this time (think FDR), given the troubling emphasis and value placed on showing how “ordinary” or anti-intellectual a candidate is. The MSM buys into promoting this as well.

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding