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Media Matters

Carrying McCain's Water Is Heavy Lifting

Jamison Foser

John McCain complaining about media coverage is a little like an oil company complaining about profit margins: hard to believe, and even harder to feel much sympathy.

This is, after all, a politician who has referred to the press as his "base," and a politician about whom MSNBC's Joe Scarborough has said "every last one of them [reporters] would move to Massachusetts and marry John McCain if they could." As Eric Alterman and George Zornick recently explained in The Nation, "no candidate since John F. Kennedy, and perhaps none since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, has enjoyed such cozy relations with the press."

But the coziness of that relationship has become increasingly one-sided in recent months, as McCain and his campaign lash out at the media, who then redouble their efforts to please the Arizona senator.

In early May, McCain senior adviser Mark Salter released a memo accusing the media of "form[ing] a protective barrier around [Obama], declaring serious limits to the questions, discussion and debate in this race," adding:

Senator Obama has good reason to think this plan will succeed, as serious journalists have written of the need for 'de-tox' to cure 'swooning' over Senator Obama, and others have admitted to losing their objectivity while with him on the campaign trail.

Later that month, McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt claimed MSNBC is "a partisan advocacy organization that exists for the purpose of attacking John McCain." The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz dutifully typed up Schmidt's charge without offering a contrary point of view. Nor did Kurtz note that McCain is subject of regular and effusive praise from MSNBC employees such as Chris Matthews, who has a habit of saying that McCain "deserves" to be president and says he "loves" McCain.

In June, Salter announced that seats on the comfy sofa next to McCain's captain's chair on his new plane were available only to "the good reporters," who would "have to earn it." Kurtz responded, "I think Mark Salter ... was joking and we should all lighten up. Can you imagine the uproar if the McCain campaign actually had a policy of rewarding favorable reporters with access to the candidate on the plane and shutting out those who dared to be critical? There would be a media revolt." But there was no "media revolt" when Salter reportedly threatened to throw Newsweek off the campaign bus just a month earlier, or when an Arizona reporter was kicked off the McCain bus. Rather than leading a "revolt" over such tactics, Kurtz covered them up, asserting it was all a big joke.

This week, the McCain campaign against the media went into overdrive. First, McCain allies began complaining that Obama's trip abroad was garnering a great deal of media attention. Republican Rep. Eric Cantor, for example, said: "The question really needs to be posed: Is this type of coverage fair? ... This is nothing but a political stunt." McCain spokesperson Jill Hazelbaker complained that "it certainly hasn't escaped us that the three network newscasts will originate from stops on Obama's trip." Today, the Republican National Committee sniffed about Obama's "overwhelming advantage in attention paid by the media."

And, as they often do when Republicans complain about the media, the media paid close attention. The Associated Press ran an article headlined, "Is media playing fair in campaign coverage?" The article was built around Republican complaints and contained not a word of criticism that the media has been excessively kind to McCain rather than Obama. The New York Times reported that coverage of Obama's trip abroad "feeds into concerns in Mr. McCain's campaign, and among Republicans in general, that the news media are imbalanced in their coverage of the candidates."

Unlike much of the media's navel-gazing in response to the McCain complaints, the Times article hinted at one of the basic flaws with criticism that the media is paying too much attention to Obama's trip: McCain and the Republicans just spent months building up the perceived importance of such a trip:

"If this were John McCain's first trip to the war zone, that would be a story and we would cover it big time," said Paul Friedman, senior vice president of CBS News. "This is Senator Obama's first trip -- his positions and the public's perception of him on national security issues are important."

Mr. Friedman said Mr. McCain and the Republicans had helped make the visit a bigger story because they had repeatedly questioned Mr. Obama's credentials, keeping a running count of the number of days that have passed since Mr. Obama last visited Iraq, in 2006.

For months, the Republicans have argued that it was of utmost importance for Obama to visit Iraq. Then, when Obama did so, the media behaved as though the visit was important. But Obama didn't commit whatever mistake the Republicans were hoping for during his trip, so the Republicans decided the trip shouldn't get so much coverage -- and many reporters, ever responsive to GOP complaints, rushed to agree.

More broadly, the problem with using the apparent fact that Obama is the subject of more media coverage to argue that he is receiving more favorable coverage is that it completely ignores the content of news reports. Take, for example, the week of April 28-May 4. Obama was either the "main newsmaker" or a "significant presence" in 69 percent of campaign stories, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, drawing significantly more media attention that week than John McCain and Hillary Clinton combined. Ah, but the bulk of that coverage was about Obama's relationship to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright -- 42 percent of the campaign news coverage that week. Anybody want to argue that the media's obsessive focus on Obama and Wright was good for Obama and bad for McCain?

All throughout the spring, as the media were obsessively focusing on every controversy, real or imagined, involving Obama or Clinton while giving McCain a pass, journalists kept promising that they'd scrutinize McCain just as soon as the Democratic primaries were over. Insisting that they couldn't walk and chew gum at the same time, reporters argued that the free ride McCain was getting was simply a result of the media's inability to cover both the Democratic candidates and John McCain. But they'd get around to the Republican nominee eventually.

That was their excuse for devoting far more attention to Obama and Wright than to McCain and Rev. John Hagee. That was their excuse for obsessively demanding Hillary Clinton release her taxes, but not saying a word about John McCain's -- even after Clinton released hers and McCain still had not done so. They'd get around to McCain someday, they kept telling us.

Well, they still aren't scrutinizing John McCain. And now, perversely, that lack of scrutiny is in effect being used to argue that the media are treating McCain poorly by not paying more attention to him.

In fact, some media are going further than merely failing to scrutinize McCain. CBS this week actively covered up a McCain blunder by deceptively editing an interview that Evening News anchor Katie Couric conducted with McCain. When Couric asked McCain for his response to a statement by Barack Obama that, in Couric's words, "there might have been improved security even without the surge," McCain responded by falsely claiming that the surge "began the Anbar awakening." In fact, the Anbar awakening began before the surge. But rather than air McCain's factually incorrect response, and tell viewers that McCain was wrong, CBS replaced his answer to Couric's question with three separate statements made by McCain spliced together, one of which was an answer to a different question -- with no indication that they had spliced the interview. (CBS also omitted another false claim McCain made during the interview: his description of the Iraq war as "the first major conflict since 9/11," something that would come as a surprise to the families of the 554 Americans who have lost their lives as a part of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.)

In explaining the deceptive editing of the McCain interview, CBS News senior vice president Paul Friedman claimed the editing "did not in any way distort what Senator McCain was saying." CBS had earlier claimed it made the edit in order to "give viewers a fair expression of the candidates' major differences."

That's nonsense. CBS showed viewers Katie Couric asking John McCain a question, edited out McCain's actual answer, which contained a falsehood, and replaced it with three separate statements spliced together, including an entirely different answer to a different question, without giving any indication of what they had done. That isn't a "fair expression" of anything. It is a gross distortion of reality, and the suppression of a false claim by John McCain on a topic that the media keep telling us is his area of expertise.

That is nothing short of fraudulent "reporting" by CBS, and it should be a major scandal.

But instead, the media spent the week wringing their hands over the possibility that they are mistreating McCain. Incredible.

And in between discussions of how unfair they were being to McCain, the media cheerfully repeated McCain's nonsensical attacks on Barack Obama.

When a McCain spokesperson and the RNC chided Obama for reportedly having people begin to plan for a possible transition, should he be elected president, the media obligingly repeated that criticism. One MSNBC host read it on-air; another agreed with the GOP that it is "premature" for Obama to begin to make such plans. A Fox host called it "unprecedented"; U.S. News & World Report's Kenneth Walsh called it "very early" and said "it plays into this notion that the Republicans are talking about, about Obama being too arrogant." A New Republic writer called it "The Earliest Transition Team Ever." Newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle reported the charge.

Only one problem: this may have been the dumbest attack any major presidential campaign has ever made. The McCain camp is criticizing Obama for preparing to govern effectively should he win. Doesn't that seem like a good thing? Clay Johnson apparently thinks so: He's the guy George W. Bush put in charge of precisely the same kind of planning in 1999 and 2000. See, Bush agreed with Johnson's assessment that it would be "irresponsible not to be doing this." Ronald Reagan began making transition plans early, too -- Ed Meese began asking people to help with the planning in 1979, the year before Reagan was elected president. Carter began his transition planning in May 1976, six months before Election Day.

So, whatever transition planning the Obama campaign is doing isn't "unprecedented" or "premature" or "The Earliest Transition Team Ever," as the media claimed on McCain's behalf. It is, instead, completely standard. And, when you think of the enormous responsibility of running the federal government, it seems -- as Clay Johnson says -- irresponsible not to do so.

The question the media should be pursuing is not whether it is "arrogant" to undertake such planning -- it plainly is not -- but why on earth the McCain campaign would criticize it. Instead, they made false claims in support of the McCain team's self-evidently absurd attacks on Obama.

Then they went back to chattering about whether their coverage favors Obama.

Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.

© 2008 Media Matters for America

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