Media advanced McCain's false "flak" attack on Obama

››› ››› BRIAN LEVY

Numerous media figures and news outlets uncritically reported or advanced Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) recent jab at Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) for spelling "flack jacket" with a "c" in "flack," including: NBC News Washington bureau chief Tim Russert, ABC News senior national correspondent Jake Tapper, Newsweek senior White House correspondent Richard Wolffe, MSNBC host Tucker Carlson, Fox News chief political correspondent Carl Cameron, the Associated Press, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and New York Daily News. However, as Media Matters for America noted, "flack jacket," as Obama's release spelled it, appears on dozens of official military websites.

In a May 25 press release, responding in part to McCain's criticism of his recent Iraq war vote, Obama asserted that "the course we are on in Iraq" is not "working." Obama said "a reflection of that [is] the fact that Senator McCain required a flack jacket" and other military protection when walking through a Baghdad market during a trip to Iraq in April. In his response that same day, McCain took issue with Obama's spelling: "By the way, Senator Obama, it's a 'flak' jacket, not a 'flack' jacket."

As Media Matters noted, MSNBC congressional correspondent Mike Viqueira subsequently reported that "flack" is an "alternative to the spelling of 'flak,' " citing Webster's New World Dictionary. In addition to Viqueira, on the May 25 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, CNN congressional correspondent Dana Bash also reported that the term "apparently can be spelled both ways."

Indeed, Media Matters compiled numerous examples of military websites using the same spelling as Obama. Furthermore, on November 19, 2004, McCain himself entered email messages into the Congressional Record in which former Secretary of the Air Force James G. Roche wrote: "I refuse to wear my flack jacket backwards!" While McCain offered numerous emendations and clarifications to the text of the email, he gave no indication that he thought "flack" was misspelled.

Following are media figures or news outlets that uncritically repeated or agreed with McCain's attack on Obama's spelling:

  • A May 25 AP article reported that McCain "went as far as to correct Obama's spelling of flak jacket," suggesting that Obama's spelling was indeed incorrect.
  • On the May 25 edition of MSNBC's Tucker, less than two hours after Viqueira's report on the 2 p.m. ET hour of MSNBC Live, Carlson uncritically quoted McCain's assertion that Obama had misspelled "flak" and called Obama a "greenhorn" because of it. On-screen graphics accompanying the segment featured a "[sic]" beside the word "flack":


    Discussing the dispute with Carlson, Wolffe also suggested that Obama's spelling was incorrect: "That thudding sound that you hear is the rear end of a PR guy in the Obama campaign getting a kick by the candidate for not checking the spelling."

  • On the May 25 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume, Cameron described "flack jacket" as a "rookie misspelling." As Media Matters documented, media figures have repeatedly used the term "rookie" to describe Obama.
  • On the May 25 edition of ABC's World News with Charlie Gibson, Tapper uncritically repeated McCain's charge, saying that "McCain, a Navy veteran, responded that Obama had misspelled the word 'flak.' "
  • On the May 26 edition of NBC's Saturday Today, NBC News congressional correspondent Chip Reid, like Viquiera and Bash, noted after checking "the dictionary" that "either spelling is acceptable." Anchor Lisa Daniels added, "Glad we settled that." However, on the May 27 edition of NBC's Sunday Today, Russert asserted that Obama "misspelled the word flak," adding that "McCain seized on that, suggesting that Senator Obama doesn't have the necessary experience in military and security affairs."
  • A May 26 New York Daily News article uncritically repeated McCain's charge and, like the on-screen graphics on Tucker, placed a "[sic]" beside Obama's "flack."
  • A May 26 Los Angeles Times article uncritically repeated McCain's press release, calling it "a slap at Obama's experience and his grasp of military terminology."
  • A May 26 Washington Post article uncritically reported McCain's charge, calling it "McCain's kicker."
  • A May 26 New York Times article reported that, following Obama's press release, "Mr. McCain did not leave that alone," and then uncritically repeated McCain's attack on Obama's spelling.

From the May 25 Associated Press article:

Hours after the Senate vote, Democrats and Republicans unleashed critical, increasingly personal statements challenging their rivals rhetoric certain to appeal to each party's core voters. McCain even went as far as to correct Obama's spelling of flak jacket.

Obama defended his vote as one for a new Iraq policy for the country and U.S. troops.

From the May 25 edition of MSNBC's Tucker:

CARLSON: What do you make of the pretty amusing argument between John McCain and Barack Obama? Bara -- John McCain issues a press release after yesterday's vote on the Iraq war funding bill, saying that "Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton voted against funding for the troops. This is the equivalent of waiving a white flag in the face of Al Qaeda."

Barack Obama comes back and issues a press release saying, "Well, that's funny, John McCain. You required, you know, two armored personnel carriers, and, you know, a regiment of the U.S. Army and a flak jacket to walk through the market downtown Baghdad." That's about the worst.

McCain comes back and says, "After two years in the United States Senate, Barack Obama, you -- I guess-- have earned the right to cast this vote. But, by the way, 'flak jacket'" is spelled F-L-A-K, not F-L-A-C-K. You can't even spell 'flack jacket' right." You Greenhorn!

WOLFFE: Right.

CARLSON: Who wins?

WOLFFE: I love it. Who wins? The American people win.

CARLSON: No, come on.

WOLFFE: Who wins? It's fabulous that these two guys are mixing it up. Obviously, they have their own problems in their primaries. The fact that they're engaging with each other when they haven't gotten through the primaries. That thudding sound that you hear is the rear end of a PR guy in the Obama campaign getting a kick by the candidate for not checking the spelling.

PETER FENN (Democratic strategist): Tucker --

WOLFFE: You know, it's entertaining. It's entertaining, but both of these guys -- look, on balance, the picture of McCain walking through that market was just terrible.

CARLSON: It was. It was true.

WOLFFE: And pictures speak much louder than these press releases.

FENN: Tucker --

CARLSON: They do, and yet hold on, wait, Peter --

FENN: I was going to ask one question. You asked the question wrong, Tucker. It's "Who gets the most flack?" That was the way you --

CARLSON: The best guys -- very good! The flack who wrote the press release, I suspect. I was most -

FENN: Sorry. I had to get to get that in.

From the May 25 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

OBAMA [video clip]: Governor [Mitt] Romney [R-MA] and Senator McCain clearly believe that the course that we're on in Iraq is working. I do not. And if there was ever a reflection of that, it's the fact that Sen. McCain required a flack jacket, 10 armored Humvees, two Apache attack helicopters, 100 soldiers with rifles by his side so he could stroll through the market in Baghdad just a few weeks ago for a photo-op.

CAMERON: Before Obama voiced that, his campaign released it on paper with a rookie misspelling. McCain wrote back, "By the way, Senator Obama. It's a 'flak' jacket, not a 'flack' jacket" with a "c."

From the May 25 edition of ABC's World News with Charlie Gibson:

TAPPER: In fact, things got personal between Senators McCain and Obama. In a blistering series of press releases, they took each other on. Obama said if there was ever a reflection of the fact that the policy in Iraq had failed, it's that McCain needed a flack jacket and troops in order to walk safely through a Baghdad market. McCain, a Navy veteran, responded that Obama had misspelled the word "flak." Charlie?

CHARLES GIBSON (anchor): Indeed, there was a lot of sniping going on on Capitol Hill. And that takes us to our chief Washington correspondent, George Stephanopoulos, who joins me tonight. Because, George, this sniping really did get bitter today on the Democratic side and on the Republican.

From the May 26 New York Daily News:

Obama shot back in a written statement, dredging up McCain's most embarrassing recent moment to say the Arizona senator is mistaken to believe the war is working.

"If there ever was a reflection of that, it's the fact that Sen. McCain required a flack [sic] jacket, 10 armored Humvees, two Apache attack helicopters, and 100 soldiers with rifles by his side to stroll through a market in Baghdad just a few weeks ago," Obama said.

An hour later, McCain hit back, calling Obama a whippersnapper.

Obama's "two years in the U.S. Senate certainly entitle him to vote against funding our troops," McCain said, but cited his own service and Vietnam experience.

"By the way, Sen. Obama, it's a 'flak' jacket, not a 'flack' jacket," McCain added.

An unnamed McCain aide piled on, telling the Politico Web site that "Obama wouldn't know the difference between an RPG and a bong."

From the May 26 Los Angeles Times:

"And if there ever was a reflection of that," he added, "it's the fact that Sen. McCain required a flack jacket, 10 armored Humvees, two Apache attack helicopters, and 100 soldiers with rifles by his side to stroll through a market in Baghdad just a few weeks ago."

McCain responded with a slap at Obama's experience and his grasp of military terminology. "While Sen. Obama's two years in the U.S. Senate certainly entitle him to vote against funding our troops, my service and experience combined with conversations with military leaders on the ground in Iraq lead me to believe that we must give this new strategy a chance to succeed, because the consequences of failure would be catastrophic to our nation's security," McCain said.

"By the way, Sen. Obama, it's a 'flak' jacket, not a 'flack' jacket," McCain added.

From the May 26 Washington Post:

McCain and Obama have a history of prickly relations. In February 2006, McCain wrote Obama a withering letter, oozing with sarcasm, that accused him of "self-interested partisan posturing" on the issue of Senate ethics reform.

Shortly after Obama's blast yesterday, McCain upped the ante. "While Senator Obama's two years in the U.S. Senate certainly entitle him to vote against funding our troops, my service and experience combined with conversations with military leaders on the ground in Iraq lead me to believe that we must give this new strategy a chance."

The McCain kicker: "By the way, Senator Obama, it's a 'flak' jacket, not a 'flack' jacket."

From the May 26 New York Times:

"And if there ever was a reflection of that," Mr. Obama continued, "it's the fact that Senator McCain required a flack jacket, 10 armored Humvees, 2 Apache attack helicopters and 100 soldiers with rifles by his side to stroll through a market in Baghdad just a few weeks ago."

Mr. McCain did not leave that alone. "By the way, Senator Obama," he said in a statement, "it's a 'flak' jacket, not a 'flack' jacket."

From the May 26 edition of NBC's Saturday Today:

REID: During a speech in Chicago, Obama returned fire.

OBAMA [video clip]: That's our message to John McCain, that's our message to Mitt Romney. It is time to bring this war to a close.

REID: The war of words between McCain and Obama became a bit petty at one point. Obama put out a press release critical of McCain in which he used the expression "flack jacket." Well, McCain, who has a bit of a temper, fired off a spelling correction. He said quote, "By the way, Senator Obama, it's F-L-A-K jacket, not F-L-A-C-K jacket." Well, we checked the dictionary, and either spelling is acceptable. Chip Reid, NBC News, the Capitol.

DANIELS: Glad we settled that.

From the May 27 edition of NBC's Sunday Today:

LESTER HOLT (host): And I want to get your take on the spat between Senator McCain and Senator Obama. They had a series of press releases over the war -- war funding votes. What's the backstory there?

RUSSERT: Well, Senator McCain and Senator Obama have mixed it up before on campaign finance reform. Clearly, Senator McCain sees it within his interests, within his Republican base, to be outspoken against Democratic candidates like Senator Clinton, Senator Obama, who voted against authorization. He seized on one word. Senator Obama talked about Senator McCain going to an Iraqi marketplace warring a flak jacket and surrounded and protected by American troops, but misspelled the word flak. And Senator McCain seized on that, suggesting that Senator Obama doesn't have the necessary experience in military and security affairs.

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