Someday never comes
The news media are so far in the tank for John McCain, many reporters don't bother even trying to pretend that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has faced the level of scrutiny they've given Democrats Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and, when he was in the race, John Edwards.
Instead, like teenagers trying to put off homework so they can go to the mall, they insist they'll get around to scrutinizing McCain ... eventually. Once the GOP primary campaign heats up. Or once he wraps up the GOP nomination. Or once the Democrats pick a nominee. Or after the conventions. Or before his first State of the Union address. No later than midway through his re-election campaign. Really. They promise.
Just this week, Newsweek's Richard Wolffe acknowledged, "I don't think there's an equal balance of criticism and focus here. In some ways, John McCain is getting a free ride," then added, "But at some point, that scrutiny will come."
At some point. Someday.
Washington Post reporter Shailagh Murray was slightly more specific in an online discussion on Monday: "[J]ust wait. Once the primary battle is over, Sen. McCain will get his fair share of scrutiny."
Just wait. Be patient. Eventually, the nation's largest news organizations will get around to telling you whether the presumptive Republican presidential nominee is lying, or flip-flopping, or just flat doesn't know what he's talking about. Not today or tomorrow, mind you -- but someday.
Back in February, The Christian Science Monitor suggested such scrutiny was imminent: "McCain is also finding that, as the likely GOP nominee, the files of opposition research being amassed by the Democrats will start to open. Press reports on his dealings with lobbyists will be a staple of coverage until election day. And as co-author of the most significant campaign finance reform since the 1970s, McCain is under intense scrutiny for any hint of hypocrisy. As time passes, his relationship with the press is likely to get testier."
It hasn't exactly worked out that way -- even though John McCain is quite probably breaking campaign finance law every single day.
Howard Kurtz, Murray's colleague at The Washington Post, took issue with her statement that the media will scrutinize McCain once the Democratic primary process is over: "We don't have unlimited resources, but I think we need to be covering McCain as vigorously now as in the fall. I mean, it's not like he's laying on a beach somewhere -- he's out there campaigning."
Kurtz's comment hinted at a common explanation reporters offer for the lack of scrutiny given to McCain: the excuse that the Democratic primary is drawing all of their attention and resources. But this is bunk. The media aren't ignoring John McCain. They're covering him. They just aren't doing so with a critical eye. They have plenty of time to call him a straight-talking maverick. They have plenty of resources to dutifully jot down, then type up and publish, his comments. They just don't bother to tell us if those comments are true, or consistent with his previous positions, or make a whit of sense.
This lack of scrutiny would be bad enough. But the situation is worse than that. Not only are the media failing to fact-check McCain -- many reporters seem to be auditioning for a position with his campaign.
Last Friday, for example, Time's Michael Scherer wrote a post on the magazine's blog headlined "Hillary Clinton's Errant Attack on McCain's Plans For New Orleans." Scherer devoted 10 paragraphs to debunking criticism of McCain by Clinton and ACORN. McCain had said about New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward: "That is why we need to go back is to have a conversation about what to do --rebuild it, tear it down -- you know, whatever it is." Clinton and ACORN (separately) criticized McCain for, in Clinton's words, saying "he might want to tear down the Ninth Ward instead of rebuilding it."
Scherer branded that charge "errant" and "almost entirely spurious." But Scherer acknowledged he hadn't actually been present for them: "Now I was not on the bus when McCain said that quote, but I was traveling with McCain during this time. And all available evidence suggests that McCain meant something far narrower -- not that he wanted to tear down the Ninth Ward, but that he wanted to speak with the people of the Ninth Ward about how they want to move forward."
And what did Scherer mean by "all available evidence"? Scherer pointed to comments McCain made three days later to prove that it is "spurious" to say that when McCain said "tear it down" he didn't really say "tear it down."
Here are the two relevant quotes again:
John McCain: "That is why we need to go back is to have a conversation about what to do -- rebuild it, tear it down -- you know, whatever it is."
Hillary Clinton: "Senator McCain said he might want to tear down the Ninth Ward instead of rebuilding it."
Hard to see how Clinton's characterization could be considered "spurious" -- but Michael Scherer devoted 10 paragraphs to showing it is, by pointing to comments McCain made three days later.
That isn't journalism; that's spin, plain and simple.
Oh, and among those ex post facto comments Scherer highlighted as evidence of McCain's commitment to rebuilding New Orleans was McCain's endorsement of "the federal plan to rebuild the levees by 2011." Set aside, for a moment, the fact that McCain's support for rebuilding the levees doesn't establish that he wouldn't support tearing down the Lower Ninth Ward. Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005 -- and Michael Scherer sees McCain's endorsement of a plan to rebuild the city's levees within six years of the disaster as evidence of the senator's commitment to the cause.
He was vague the funding levels he would endorse for these efforts, but clearly stated that helping the people of the Lower Ninth was a priority for him. When one resident asked if he would be willing to revise the federal emergency assistance law, he said, "I will reform any legislation that is an impediment to getting people the help necessary in order to restore their lives."
These are not the words of a man who "might want to tear down the Ninth Ward instead of rebuilding it," as Clinton put it.
Got that? McCain was vague about actually funding the efforts he claimed to support -- indeed, every comment of McCain's that Scherer quoted was so vague as to be utterly meaningless. Still, according to Michael Scherer, "These are not the words of a man who 'might want to tear down the Ninth Ward instead of rebuilding it."
Perhaps not. But these are: "That is why we need to go back is to have a conversation about what to do -- rebuild it, tear it down -- you know, whatever it is."
Think about the standard Time's Michael Scherer is setting for criticism of John McCain. Scherer doesn't contest that McCain made the "tear it down" comment. But he argues that it is unfair -- "spurious" and "errant," even -- to criticize McCain for it, because three days later he said something that Scherer claims could be construed as strong support for rebuilding the Lower Ninth.
Scherer doesn't come right out and say it, but the implication is clear as day: By Scherer's logic, it is unfair to criticize anything John McCain says if he ever made a dissimilar comment.
When some politicians -- Democrats, mostly -- make comments that could be seen as inconsistent, the media brand them flip-flops and declare them indicative of a grave character flaw. When John McCain makes disparate comments, Time magazine's Michael Scherer apparently concludes that McCain can't be criticized for either.
By the way, in that 10-paragraph apology for McCain, Scherer didn't reference a single vote McCain has cast in the Senate that is relevant to Hurricane Katrina. It's been nearly three years since the storm hit, and John McCain is a United States senator -- but Scherer doesn't bother to examine what, if anything, McCain has actually done to help the city and its residents ... or to stand in the way of such help.
I'm sure he'll get around to it. Someday.
On Thursday's edition of Hardball, Chris Matthews declared that McCain's primary asset in the coming general election is his "integrity." Matthews has previously praised McCain's "candor" and "straight talk," and asserted that he has "always been honest."
More than a week before Matthews' reference to McCain's "integrity," The New York Times revealed that McCain helped Donald Diamond, one of his biggest fundraisers, purchase a stretch of California coastal land from the Pentagon -- a purchase that netted Diamond a $20 million profit. Diamond explained: "I think that is what Congress people are supposed to do for constituents. ... When you have a big, significant businessman like myself, why wouldn't you want to help move things along? What else would they do? They waste so much time with legislation."
Chris Matthews has never uttered Donald Diamond's name on air. He hasn't so much as mentioned the story in passing. Instead, he just continues to assert that McCain is a man of "integrity."
Even if the media do someday scrutinize John McCain's statements and record and proposals, it may not matter. By lavishing him with praise now, and defending him against even perfectly accurate criticism, the media are inoculating McCain against future scrutiny. Intentionally or not, by repeating over and over again that McCain is Mr. Clean and a straight-talker, the media are priming voters to disregard future news reports that suggest the contrary -- just as journalists do already.