A test for the media
On MSNBC on Thursday, Time's Jay Carney offered an assessment of the McCain campaign's most recent assault on the media: "Clearly, the campaign has decided that one way to win is to attack the media. Now, that could work. It does not have a great history of working. 'Annoy the Media: Re-Elect George Bush,' 1992 -- Bush got, I think, 39 percent of the vote or 37 percent of the vote."
Carney didn't explicitly say it, but he seems to be under the impression that the point of the McCain campaign's attacks on the media is to win support from voters who dislike the media. And he seems to think the Republicans only occasionally wage a war on his profession.
In fact, it is a constant war, the point of which is not to merely win a few votes from people who dislike the media. The point is to make voters distrust the media, to make them believe the media are out to get conservatives and thus cause them to discount news reports that are unfavorable to conservatives, and to cow the media themselves into running fewer such reports. (It serves another purpose, too: It helps a nominee whose heiress wife shows up at the convention in an outfit estimated to cost $300,000 pretend to be a man of the people raging against the "elites." But that's a story better told elsewhere.)
And it does indeed have a great history of working. No, it has a spectacularly successful history of working -- of helping conservatives win both short-term and long-term victories. Don't take my word for it: Longtime Washington Post reporter Tom Edsall, now of The Huffington Post, has explained:
The conservative movement has been very effective attacking the media (broadcast and print) for its liberal biases. The refusal of the media to disclose and discuss the ideological leanings of reporters and editors, and the broader claim of objectivity, has made the press overly anxious, and inclined to lean over backwards not to offend critics from the right. In many respects, the campaign against the media has been more than a victory: it has turned the press into an unwilling, and often unknowing, ally of the right.
Take one example of right-wing media bashing contributing to short-term electoral success: Under fire from the White House and conservative activists, CBS News spiked a report questioning the Bush administration's case for the Iraq war that was supposed to air shortly before the 2004 election.
During that year's presidential debates, Bush told Americans, "I'm not so sure it's credible to quote leading news organizations" -- a direct assault on the media from the president of the United States in the biggest forum he had. But that was only a small drop in the steady stream of media criticism that came from Bush and his allies during the 2004 election.
If Jay Carney is going to point to election results to assess the success of the GOP's assault on the media, he can't simply cherry-pick the elections the Republicans lost; they've been doing this every election cycle for 40 years.
But the conservatives' attacks on the media aren't simply about the next election. They recognize that each such criticism makes voters and the media more likely to believe the next -- so even if the 2004 attacks hadn't worked, they still would have been successful.
And there would be nothing wrong with any of that -- if the Republicans' complaints had significant merit. But they frequently do not -- and they often don't even pretend that they do.
A few weeks ago, for example, there was a frenzy of conservative whining that Barack Obama had gotten more media coverage than John McCain. Now, the amount of coverage each candidate has gotten, by itself, tells us virtually nothing. What was the content of the coverage? Was it positive? Negative? True? False? Fair? Balanced? The conservative complainers made no attempt to assess this -- they just yelled that Obama was getting more coverage. Well, O.J. Simpson got considerably more coverage than Mother Teresa in 1994 -- anyone want to argue he got more favorable coverage? Anyone want to argue that, by covering Simpson too much, the media were demonstrating that they were in the tank for him?
Still, despite glaring flaws with the Republicans' criticism, the media took them seriously, and many journalists adopted the complaints as their own.
The past week provides a useful case study of how the Republicans' assault on the media works.
Last Friday, John McCain announced that he had chosen Sarah Palin to be his running mate. The media had a few questions -- basically, who is she, and is she ready to be president? So the McCain campaign threw a tantrum, insisting the media were being unfair. As usual, the complaints were short on details and merit -- but the media still took the complaints seriously, treating them as one of the most important topics of the past few week.
Perhaps the best example of how phony the GOP's complaints were: the McCain campaign's cancellation of an appearance by McCain on Larry King Live because, they said, CNN anchor Campbell Brown had behaved improperly in interviewing campaign spokesperson Tucker Bounds the night before. They didn't really say what Brown had done wrong -- probably because all she had done was ask simple questions that Bounds couldn't answer. After Bounds said that as governor of Alaska, Palin leads the state's National Guard, Brown asked him for an example of a decision she had made in that capacity. He didn't answer. So she asked him again. That isn't inappropriate; that's exactly what she should have done -- that's journalism.
And that drove the McCain campaign crazy.
So, did all the complaints work?
Consider this: Wednesday night, Sarah Palin falsely claimed she had told Congress she did not want funding for the "bridge to nowhere." She didn't; that was a lie. Congress had said a year before Palin became governor that Alaska need not spend the federal funds on the bridge. And Palin had initially supported the bridge, not opposed it. And once she became governor, Palin kept the money. Palin's false claims Wednesday night were not new: She had said the same thing in previous campaign appearances since McCain picked her -- and several media outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times had debunked the boast. But when Palin told the lie during her convention speech -- after days of McCain complaints that the media had been too hard on Palin -- those newspapers ignored the lie.
That wasn't the only false claim in Palin's speech that went un-debunked by the media. She falsely attacked Barack Obama's legislative record -- and media uncritically quoted the false claims. She lied about Obama's tax plans -- she said he "wants to raise" them, even though John McCain's own economic adviser has admitted that is false -- and, again, the media repeated her claim without debunking it.
Instead, much of the media gushed over her speech. If you watched MSNBC yesterday, you would have seen reporter after reporter talk about the McCain complaints that the media were too hard on Palin. And you would have seen reporter after reporter lavish praise on Palin's speech. But you wouldn't have seen them say much about the actual content of Palin's speech -- certainly not about whether she told the truth in it. At one point, Andrea Mitchell declared that "what came through" in Palin's address was "the authenticity."
Nonsense. "Authenticity" doesn't consist of doing a good job of delivering a speech -- not if the speech is riddled with falsehoods. But most of the media didn't tell you about the falsehoods, they just fell all over themselves praising the speech -- even praising the "authenticity" of someone who stood before the nation and repeated lies she had already been caught telling.
So, did the McCain attacks on the media work? They certainly didn't hurt.
And this isn't the first time a McCain assault on the media has appeared to pay off. He and his campaign have spent much of the year attacking the press.
The media have told us a lot about Barack Obama and Tony Rezko, for example -- but kept key details about John McCain's relationship with Charles Keating a secret. Did you know that Cindy McCain was business partners with Keating around the time John McCain was meeting with regulators on Keating's behalf? Probably not: The Washington Post hasn't told readers that fact during this campaign; The New York Times has made only brief mention of it. ABC, CBS, NBC -- nothing.
Or how about the fact that John and Cindy McCain would save nearly $400,000 a year under John McCain's tax plan -- a tax plan that includes the extension of Bush tax cuts McCain once bashed as unfairly skewed towards the wealthy? Have you seen any media mention to that lately? It wasn't long ago that news organizations thought John Edwards' wealth was important to keep in mind in assessing his policy proposals -- but that apparently doesn't apply to John McCain.
The McCain campaign's war against the media shouldn't be surprising; this is what conservatives do. The only real question is what reporters are going to do about it. Are they going to fall for the absurd argument that John McCain -- arguably the national politician who has received the most favorable media coverage over the past decade, if not longer -- is being unfairly treated by reporters who still haven't given him any serious scrutiny? Are they going to cower in the face of right-wing bullying as they have so many times in the past?
It's hard to imagine that they won't. But there have been some encouraging signs this week. Time's Carney seems legitimately irritated that the Republican vice-presidential nominee refuses to face reporters. And colleague Joe Klein -- who has, in the past, been awfully kind to McCain -- urged fellow reporters not to back down in the face of the barrage of criticism from the right:
There is a tendency in the media to kick ourselves, cringe and withdraw, when we are criticized. But I hope my colleagues stand strong in this case: it is important for the public to know that Palin raised taxes as governor, supported the Bridge to Nowhere before she opposed it, pursued pork-barrel projects as mayor, tried to ban books at the local library and thinks the war in Iraq is "a task from God." The attempts by the McCain campaign to bully us into not reporting such things are not only stupidly aggressive, but unprofessional in the extreme.
The next two months will constitute a test for reporters: If they fall for the idea that they're treating unfairly a candidate who has long referred to them as his "base," what won't they fall for? If they won't stand up to these attacks, what will they stand up to?