Ignoring Keating

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Every few days, John McCain or his campaign lashes out at the news media, often focusing their ire on The New York Times, for alleged bias against the Republican presidential candidate. It's a strange claim coming from the politician who has enjoyed a cozier relationship with the national media than any other in memory.

Every few days, John McCain or his campaign lashes out at the news media, often focusing their ire on The New York Times, for alleged bias against the Republican presidential candidate. It's a strange claim coming from the politician who has enjoyed a cozier relationship with the national media than any other in memory.

Patrick Healy's article in this morning's New York Times provides yet another of the countless examples that undermine McCain's claim. Though most public polling -- including the Times' own poll -- shows that more people have confidence in Barack Obama's ability to handle the economy than in McCain's, and more people think Obama understands their needs and problems, Healy asserted that Obama is "out of sync" with the public and accused him of "convey[ing] a certain distance from the ache that many voters feel."

On Monday, the McCain campaign accused The New York Times of being "150 percent in the tank" for Obama. On Friday, the Times demonstrated the absurdity of that accusation by publishing an article that baselessly asserted that Obama is struggling to connect with the public on economic issues despite the fact that polling shows the exact opposite -- it is McCain who is struggling. But that wasn't the only bizarre element of the Times article: Seemingly out of the blue, Healy invoked Obama's race:

He wants to appear fired up over the economy, but he has written before about wanting to avoid appearing like a stereotypical angry black man. Unlike Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton and other black leaders whose fulminations could scare white voters, Mr. Obama is not from and of New York, Detroit, or the segregated South; he grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. To some degree Mr. Obama faces the opposite challenge from fiery black leaders who came before him: Is he too cool for a crisis like this one?

So, according to Times reporter Patrick Healy, Jesse Jackson is too hot, and Barack Obama is too cool. Presumably, Healy will let us know when he finds an African-American who is just right.

And this, remember, is the newspaper that the McCain campaign says is "150 percent in the tank" for Obama.

But the week's most striking indication that the media are inadequately scrutinizing McCain rather than, as he claims, unfairly doing so is that in the midst of a banking crisis, there is virtually no media examination of McCain's role in a similar crisis 20 years ago.

Sure, the Keating Five has been mentioned in news reports during this campaign. But when McCain's involvement in the scandal comes up in the media, it tends to be a brief mention -- and often one that paints McCain in the best possible light. On Monday, Politico reporter Ben Smith gave a telling response to the Obama campaign's complaints that insufficient attention has been paid to McCain's relationship with Keating:

The Keating Five scandal, though, is hardly a secret. Indeed, the story is central to McCain's political narrative. He's called his actions a mistake, and the episode is what transformed him into a self-stylled [sic] reformer.

"He has basically dedicated his career since that moment to the cleaning up of Washington," McCain aide Douglas Holtz-Eakin told me last week.

As Smith's reaction demonstrates, the version of the Keating Five story the media typically tell is the version that is "central to McCain's political narrative" -- that the experience turned McCain into a political Mr. Clean, rampaging against corruption in the nation's capital. We are told McCain's tale of redemption -- but little of what he did to make redemption necessary.

Take, for example, one of the most damning -- and under-reported -- facts of the case: Not only did McCain take campaign contributions and free Bahamas vacations from Keating, but his wife also invested more than $350,000 in a Keating real estate development shortly before McCain met with federal banking regulators on Keating's behalf.

Yes, John McCain's wife -- in whose houses McCain lives and entertains throngs of adoring reporters -- had a direct financial relationship with Keating. And according to The Boston Globe, one of the regulators who felt like he was pressured by McCain to go easy on Keating believes McCain intervened in part because of Cindy McCain's investment with Keating.

A New York Times editorial earlier this year touched on the investment in arguing for the release of Cindy McCain's taxes:

There is no question that Mr. McCain -- the candidate -- has reaped considerable benefits from his wife's wealth, including discounted use of her company's corporate jet to fly from state to state during this campaign.

Voters also deserve to know whether any of Senator McCain's official actions have benefited his wife, family members, or their business associates, as they did in the case of Charles Keating, the Arizona developer and savings and loan operator at the center of the Keating Five scandal two decades ago. A year before Mr. McCain's 1987 meetings with bank regulators on Mr. Keating's behalf, Mrs. McCain and her father invested more than $350,000 in a strip mall developed by Mr. Keating.

[...]

Senator and Mrs. McCain should show that they're both committed to open government and release Mrs. McCain's returns.

But Cindy McCain's tax returns still have not been released. And the news media (which obsessively demanded the release of Bill and Hillary Clinton's tax returns) have all but ignored the topic. And the fact that Cindy McCain was a business partner of Keating's has been treated as a state secret by the national news media. Since January 1, 2007:

  • The New York Times has not mentioned the investment in a single news article, even though the paper's editorial board has explained its significance.
  • The Washington Post has not mentioned the investment -- not once. The Post has run two separate profiles of Cindy McCain that mentioned the Keating Five controversy, each of which ran more than 2,500 words. But, incredibly, neither article mentioned the strip mall investment. Nor has any other Washington Post article during the campaign.
  • Neither USA Today nor Time magazine has mentioned the investment.
  • Neither ABC, nor CBS, nor NBC has mentioned the investment -- not a single time.

CNN has mentioned the investment in profiles of McCain that have aired several times. In one, the cable channel even aired video of one of the Keating regulators who felt pressured noting that "Senator McCain was unique among the five senators in having a direct financial conflict of interest involving direct investments. ... On judgment, ethics and truthfulness, he failed this test as badly as you can fail." But CNN has been an exception among national media, not the rule.

In 1990, in the midst of the Keating Five investigation, the Phoenix New Times noted that the scandal had scuttled McCain's hopes at national office:

The stakes are incredibly high for McCain. There was a time, before the Keating bubble burst, when he was reportedly being considered for a spot on the Republican ticket as vice president.

Those days are over.

Now, with the nation in the midst of another banking crisis caused in part by deregulation, John McCain is running for president -- and the national media are keeping the details of his involvement in the Keating fiasco a secret.

Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.

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