Press Box

McCain Bites the Press

Just because the press loves Obama doesn’t mean it hates McCain.

John McCain

Yesterday, the McCain campaign pilloried the New York Times in a conference call with the press. Senior adviser Steve Schmidt, taking offense at a Times piece that scrutinized McCain’s campaign manager, bawled:

Whatever the New York Times once was, it is today not by any standard a journalistic organization. It is a pro-Obama advocacy organization that every day attacks the McCain campaign, attacks Sen. McCain, attacks Gov. Palin and excuses Sen. Obama.

Schmidt continued:

This is an organization that is completely, totally 150 percent in the tank for the Democratic candidate. … Everything that is read in the New York Times that attacks this campaign should be evaluated by the American people from that perspective, that it is an organization that has made a decision to cast aside its journalistic integrity and tradition to advocate for the defeat of one candidate, in this case, John McCain, and advocate for the election for the other candidate, Barack Obama.

The Times devoted a short write-up to Schmidt’s inflammatory remarks in today’s edition. Spraying flame retardant on the embers, Times Executive Editor Bill Keller issued a statement, quoted in the article, stating that the paper has covered both candidates “fully, fairly, and aggressively.”

The attack on the Times elicited liberal shrieks: Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.  blogged that the McCain campaign was trying to “intimidate and discredit those who try to give an honest account of the campaign.” New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen declared on Romenekso that if the McCain campaign regards the Times a “political action committee working for Obama … then why does the Times have to treat the McCain crew as a ‘normal’ campaign organization, rather than a bunch of rogue operators willing to say absolutely anything to gain power and lie to the nation once in office?” For the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein, Schmidt’s comments amounted to a declaration of war against the press.

Jeesh! Have we really gotten to the point at which a presidential campaign operative can’t throw a bag of rotten, wormy peaches at the press without getting a load of grief in return? I don’t recall journalists—or their defenders—howling like this after the Hillary Clinton campaign and Saturday Night Livespotted the press corps petting Obama so heavily.

While I don’t believe that the Times is pulling for Barack Obama, and I’d never judge an entire publication by one story, Steve Schmidt is right about the more general point he raises: The press corps does adore Barack Obama. They like his story. They like writing about him. They like the way he gives speeches. They like the way he makes them feel. And they don’t mind cutting him slack whenever he acts like a regular politician—which he is.

This, of course, is the same press corps that adored John McCain during the 2000 race, as this comprehensive study by FAIR shows. The press corps liked his honesty. They liked the access he provided them. They liked his maverick stance. They liked the way he made them feel. And they didn’t mind cutting him slack whenever he acted like a regular politician—which he was, most of the time.

Back in 2000, McCain—like Obama today—had no compunction about capitalizing on the infatuation. But such puppy love between press and candidate is unsustainable. The longer a politician hangs around Washington, the longer he casts votes in the Senate, the more baggage-laden staffers he acquires, the more campaign donations he accepts, and the more meat he produces for the press to chew on. And in the heat of the campaign, chew they will.

Signs that the press corps is untangling itself from its Obama crush are starting to appear. Just last week, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus refused to find moral equivalency between Obama and McCain as she ripped the McCain campaign, calling it “more dishonest, more unfair, more … dishonorable than Barack Obama’s.” This week, Marcus reverses gear—”rebalancing … the scales,” she calls it—to savage the Obama campaign for its recent attacks on McCain. Marcus writes:

Obama has descended to similarly scurrilous tactics on the stump and on the air. …Obama has been furthest out of line, however, on Social Security, stooping to the kind of scare tactics he once derided. …… Obama’s cartoon version of private accounts is not what Bush suggested, and it certainly is not something being peddled by McCain now. …To Democrats who worry about whether their nominee is willing to do whatever it takes to win: You can calm down.

A smart Politico piece from yesterday by Alexander Burns and Jim VandeHei frames McCain’s relationship with the New York Times as one of love-hate—but mostly one of love. When it has served McCain’s interests to chum around with Times reporters and give them access, McCain has chummed around with Times reporters and given them access. Now that political advantage can be gained by giving the Times a mouthful of bloody Chiclets, he’s ready for that, too.

Where does McCain really stand on the press? Wherever expediency demands. In a July 22 interview, CBS News anchor Katie Couric asked McCain about one of his campaign’s videos, which alleged the “media’s love affair with Sen. Obama.” McCain laughed. When she followed up by asking if he thought he was getting “unfair coverage,” McCain replied:

I don’t think so. I think … it is what it is. I’m a big boy. And I’m enjoying every minute of the campaigning. And I’m certainly not complaining.

Please don’t wake me until McCain—or Obama—start doing their own griping.


I’ll happily sleep through Cindy McCain’s next critique of the investigative unit that is The View. Of her joint appearance on the show earlier this month with her husband, Cindy said, “In spite of what you see … in the newspapers, and on shows like The View—I don’t know if any of you saw ‘The View’ yesterday, they picked our bones clean—in spite of what you see, that’s not what the American people are saying and what they are believing.” Listen to her bleat on Jake Tapper’s Political Punch blog. Send wake-up calls to (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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