It’s hardly controversial to point out that many in the corporate media have a fondness for presumptive GOP White House nominee John McCain. The prevailing journalistic attitude was expressed by Washington Post columnist David Broder (4/24/08): “In an age of deep cynicism about politicians of both parties, McCain is the rare exception who is not assumed to be willing to sacrifice personal credibility to prevail in any contest.”
Over the past few months, however, many pundits and reporters have declared that despite the press corps’ feelings for McCain, he will nevertheless face tough scrutiny . . . some day.
After declaring on PBS’s Charlie Rose show (2/8/08) that some of McCain’s rhetoric is beyond criticism (“McCain has a license to use words that the rest of us could not. . . . I mean, he can be pretty out there, using words like ‘surrender,’ because who is really going to question John McCain?”), Newsweek’s Evan Thomas (2/16/08) responded to the idea that the press was fond of McCain and Barack Obama as well:
Maybe so, but it doesn’t really matter, because the press is almost certain to turn on both men. Digging through the personal record, searching for human flaws, is what reporters do when they cover presidential campaigns, and the critical skepticism only deepens when the winner occupies the Oval Office.
On NBC’s Meet the Press (4/27/08), PBS host Gwen Ifill explained: “There’s a lot of time between now and the fall. . . . John McCain is doing a lot of interesting things which will bear closer scrutiny when the time comes.”
In an April 25 online chat (cited by ThinkProgress, 4/29/08), Washington Post reporter Shailagh Murray was asked, “Will we see more scrutiny of [McCain’s] campaign finances and practices, or will Obama/Wright continue to suck up all the oxygen?”
Murray’s reply: “This is driving Democrats crazy right now, but just wait. Once the primary battle is over, Senator McCain will get his fair share of scrutiny.”
When Newsweek’s Richard Wolffe was asked on MSNBC (4/30/08; cited by Media Matters, 5/1/08) whether McCain received a free pass from the media with regard to his ties to right-wing evangelist John Hagee, he declared:
Absolutely. And look, we’ve all heard evangelical ministers, white ministers, condemn America and damn America for abortions. And so, yeah, I don’t think there’s an equal balance of criticism and focus here. In some ways, John McCain is getting a free ride. But of course, that doesn’t take away from the offensive nature and the outrageousness of what Reverend Wright has said. But at some point, that scrutiny will come.
NBC’s Tim Russert spoke on the Don Imus show (5/5/08; cited in CJR Daily, 5/6/08) on the same subject: “I don’t think the Hagee thing, McCain hasn’t been questioned, has not been scrutinized about that. . . . He’s really been given this grace period to go around the country.” Russert said the same thing that evening on MSNBC (5/5/08; cited in CJR Daily, 5/7/08): “When Senator McCain is back in the media’s light, he’ll receive the same kind of scrutiny.”
When blogger Arianna Huffington argued (Good Morning America, 5/1/08) that McCain “is not getting the scrutiny he deserves,” ABC anchor Charles Gibson replied: “But Arianna . . . we got a big Democratic race going on now. The McCain/X race, whoever he runs against, will get very major attention soon.”
A May 7 USA Today editorial declared that “Republican John McCain might be enjoying the Democratic brawl from the sidelines, but sooner or later, he’ll be back in the harsh spotlight himself.”
It’s unusual to hear reporters admitting that even though a prominent politician and presidential candidate is saying and doing things that deserve scrutiny, they haven’t gotten around to giving his words or deeds much attention.
McCain’s recent activities do cry out for media coverage. On April 18, McCain released his own tax returns, showing that he has next to no assets in his own name, while keeping his wife’s sizable fortune private—a tactic that attracted intensely skeptical coverage when Sen. John Kerry tried it in 2004 (New York Times, 5/9/04).
Or consider McCain’s blaming a bridge collapse last year in Minneapolis on earmark spending—a claim the alleged Straight Talker promptly withdrew (L.A. Times, 5/2/08).
Or McCain’s assurance that his energy policy “will prevent us from having ever to send our young men and women into conflict again in the Middle East”—a phrasing that implied that all Mideast wars the U.S. has been involved in are essentially about oil, although McCain later claimed that he was only referring to the 1991 Gulf War (AP, 5/2/08).
Journalism, of course, is supposed to hold politicians to account—not some day, but every day. Putting off scrutiny of John McCain until some imagined future moment is really giving him a free pass in the present—and that’s a journalistic problem that deserves some self-scrutiny.