It isn't surprising that the conventional wisdom is that the news media have turned on Sen. John McCain. After all, decades of attacks from conservatives have conditioned reporters to believe that they are biased against Republicans -- even when there is scant evidence in the reporting to support such claims. And the McCain campaign has launched an all-out assault on the media, complaining relentlessly about the coverage its candidate has gotten.
On top of all that, McCain historically has been the recipient of the most favorable media coverage of any politician in modern American history. Reporters spent years all but offering to peel McCain a grape. So, just as the media judge a candidate to have "won" a debate if s/he "exceeds expectations," the fact that McCain's coverage hasn't been as hagiographic as expected has led many to conclude that it has actually been unfairly negative.
The truth is that when John McCain says "jump," the media still ask, "How high?" Think about this: When was the last time McCain or his campaign has wanted the news media to focus on something, and they have refused? From "lipstick on a pig" to Bill Ayers, the media have scampered after whatever mud McCain has flung, like a puppy dog chasing a stick thrown by its master. Sure, sometimes they have pointed out that McCain is lying -- and that's tremendous progress for a profession that has spent a decade flatly asserting McCain's honesty. But -- as I've explained in the past -- even as they've debunked McCain's claims, they've too often privileged the lie by allowing those claims to drive their coverage.
And, increasingly, they uncritically quote McCain campaign attacks on Sen. Barack Obama for things McCain himself has done. When a campaign does something like this, the media often point out the hypocrisy, and the attack backfires. But those rules don't apply to John McCain. So when John and Cindy McCain attack Barack Obama for what they describe as a vote to "cut off the funds for the troops," the news media dutifully repeat the charge -- without noting that, by the same logic, McCain also voted to cut off funds for the troops: Obama voted against a funding bill that did not include a timeline for withdrawal; McCain voted against a bill that did include a timeline for withdrawal.
The funding vote has been the subject of some of McCain's nastiest attacks recently. Cindy McCain, for example, claimed Obama's "vote to not fund my son when he was serving sent a cold chill through my body" and lectured: "I would suggest that Senator Obama change shoes with me for just one day. ... I suggest he take a day and go watch our fine young men and women deploy." You would think, then, that media reporting Cindy McCain's purported indignation would note that John McCain also voted against funding. They haven't. Indeed, some have falsely stated the opposite -- that McCain did not cast such a vote. You might even think reporters would ask the McCain campaign if Cindy McCain got a "cold chill" when her husband voted "to not fund [her] son." But there is no indication that any reporter has done so.
But the best indication that McCain has not yet truly "lost his 'base,' " as The Atlantic's Marc Ambinder put it this week, is the glaring media double standard in covering the two presidential candidates' controversial relationships.
Let's start with Bill Ayers, since the news media have spent much of the week obliging McCain's efforts to make him the focus of the campaign. As an activist in the 1960s -- when Barack Obama was a young child -- Bill Ayers was a member of the Weathermen, a group of radical activists who launched a series of violent demonstrations and bombings in protest of the Vietnam War. Ayers is now a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago and a school reform advocate. During Obama's first campaign, Ayers hosted a coffee for him, and the two men have served together on the board of a school reform effort funded by a foundation chaired by Leonore Annenberg, who has endorsed John McCain. The New York Times concluded that Obama and Ayers "do not appear to have been close," and Obama has denounced Ayers' actions as a member of the Weathermen.
A search* of the Nexis database found that more than 4,500 news reports so far this year have mentioned Obama and Ayers -- more than 1,800 this week alone.
Now: G. Gordon Liddy. Liddy served four and a half years in prison for his role in the break-ins at the Watergate and at Daniel Ellsberg's psychologist's office. He has acknowledged preparing to kill someone during the Ellsberg break-in "if necessary." He plotted to kill journalist Jack Anderson. He plotted with a "gangland figure" to murder Howard Hunt in order to thwart an investigation. He plotted to firebomb the Brookings Institution. He used Nazi terminology to outline a plan to kidnap "leftist guerillas" at the 1972 GOP convention. And Liddy's bad acts were not confined to the early 1970s. In the 1990s, he instructed his radio audience on how to shoot Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agents ("Go for a head shot; they're going to be wearing bulletproof vests." In case anyone missed the subtlety of his point, Liddy also insisted: "Kill the sons of bitches.") During Bill Clinton's presidency, Liddy boasted that he named his shooting targets after the Clintons.
What does Liddy have to do with the presidential election? As Media Matters has noted:
Liddy has donated $5,000 to McCain's campaigns since 1998, including $1,000 in February 2008. In addition, McCain has appeared on Liddy's radio show during the presidential campaign, including as recently as May. An online video labeled, "John McCain On The G. Gordon Liddy Show 11/8/07," includes a discussion between Liddy and McCain, whom Liddy described as an "old friend." During the segment, McCain praised Liddy's "adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great," said he was "proud" of Liddy, and said that "it's always a pleasure for me to come on your program."
To sum up: John McCain is "proud" of his "old friend" Gordon Liddy -- an old friend who plotted to kill one of the most respected journalists in American history, and who urged listeners to kill federal agents and advised them on how to do so. McCain campaigned for Liddy's son, and Liddy has even hosted a fundraiser for McCain at his home.
So McCain's relationship with Liddy is pretty much a direct parallel to Obama's relationship with Ayers. Except that McCain and Liddy have apparently spent time together more recently than Obama and Ayers. And Liddy's extremist activities continued well into the 1990s, at least. And Liddy says he and McCain are "old friends," while The New York Times says Obama and Ayers aren't close. And Obama has never said Ayers adheres to "the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great." Other than all that, it's a direct parallel.
Yet even as they obsess over Barack Obama and Bill Ayers -- just as the McCain campaign tells them to -- the news media have all but ignored John McCain's close ties to Gordon Liddy. A Nexis search** finds fewer than 100 news reports that have mentioned McCain and Liddy this year.
As Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman -- who has criticized Obama's relationship with Ayers -- has noted:
Liddy, now a conservative radio host, has never expressed regret for this attempt to subvert the Constitution. Nor has he developed any respect for the law. ... Yet none of this bothers McCain. Liddy has contributed thousands of dollars to his campaigns, held a fundraiser for McCain at his home and hosted the senator on his radio show, where McCain said, "I'm proud of you." Exactly which part of Liddy's record is McCain proud of?
While Obama has gotten lots of scrutiny for his connection to Ayers, McCain has never had to explain his association with Liddy. If he can't defend it, he should admit as much. And if he thinks he can defend it, let him.
- 2008 news reports that mention Obama and Ayers: more than 4,500.
- 2008 news reports that mention McCain and Liddy: fewer than 100.
Incredibly, The Atlantic's Ambinder today suggests that the media have not covered Ayers: "To truly drive Ayers into the public conversation, to trick what they consider an irredeemably biased press corps into biting, McCain has three vehicles gassed up and ready to go. ... So far, McCain has done none of those things." There are 1,800 Nexis hits for Barack Obama and Bill Ayers in the past week, and yet Marc Ambinder thinks the media have not bitten on the Ayers "story" -- and that McCain, who is running ads about Ayers, isn't "really serious" about pushing it, anyway. Even Steve Schmidt would likely be too embarrassed to try to claim that the media have not covered Bill Ayers.
Incidentally, Ambinder doesn't seem to have ever mentioned McCain's relationship to Liddy.
Not only have the media avoided stand-alone reports on McCain and Liddy, they consistently fail to bring up the connection when reporting on McCain's attacks on Obama's ties to Ayers, or in interviews with McCain staff who bring up Ayers. The McCain/Liddy relationship is such an obvious parallel -- except arguably much worse -- that it's hard to imagine how any evenhanded journalist could possibly justify ignoring it. Yet it happens again and again. And, needless to say, McCain aides do not get badgered about Liddy the way Time's Mark Halperin badgered Obama aide Robert Gibbs about Ayers.
Just this morning, NBC's Chuck Todd said he is "sure" Ayers will come up during the final presidential debate next week, adding that moderator Bob Schieffer "may feel no choice but to bring it up" in light of the "TV ads" the McCain campaign and Republican National Committee are running. Setting aside the absurdity of the suggestion that a debate moderator is compelled to bring up a topic simply because John McCain is running ads about it, if Schieffer does ask about Ayers, basic fairness demands that he ask McCain about Liddy as well.
OK ... moving on. How about controversial religious figures? Earlier this year, Media Matters showed that The New York Times and The Washington Post had published a total of 161 articles, editorials, and opinion pieces that mentioned Barack Obama and Jeremiah Wright -- and only 12 that mentioned John McCain and John Hagee. That disparity wasn't unique to the Times and the Post -- and it hasn't evened out over time.
161 to 12.
Land deals? Barack Obama once bought a parcel of land from a controversial donor named Tony Rezko. Obama paid more than the land's assessed value -- but that hasn't stopped the news media from suggesting Obama had an improper relationship with Rezko.
Comparatively little attention has been paid to John McCain's relationship with real estate developer Donald Diamond. Diamond, a co-chair of McCain's campaign finance committee, has raised more than $250,000 for McCain's presidential bid and is a "close personal friend" and longtime political patron. For his part, McCain has sponsored two bills sought by Diamond that helped the developer gain what The New York Times described as "millions of dollars and thousands of acres" of land. And McCain helped Diamond buy another parcel of land from the U.S. Army -- a deal that helped Diamond turn a $20 million profit. The Washington Post and USA Today have identified other land deals McCain has facilitated as senator that have benefited some of his biggest donors and fundraisers.
Yet a Media Matters review last month found that five national newspapers had run a total of 39 articles, editorials, and opinion pieces that mentioned Obama and Rezko -- but only seven that mentioned McCain and his donors' land deals:
[S]ince The New York Times' initial April 22 article [about McCain and Diamond], the land deals have been mentioned in only six additional news articles, editorials, or opinion pieces in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, or The Washington Post, and have yet to be mentioned on any evening network news program. By contrast, during the same time period, 39 news articles, editorials, or opinion pieces in those papers have collectively mentioned Obama and Rezko; and the evening news broadcasts have collectively mentioned Obama and Rezko in five reports.
39 to 7.
And, of course, there's always Charles Keating. The news media have done their best to ignore McCain's involvement in the Keating Five -- and, when they have mentioned it, they've done so by parroting the McCain-friendly storyline that the scandal turned the Arizona senator into the World's Greatest Reformer. Even this week, after the Obama campaign drew attention to McCain's involvement in the Keating Five with a Web page and a 13-minute documentary featuring one of the regulators McCain pressured on behalf of his political benefactor, the media have paid far more attention to Obama's relationship with Bill Ayers than to McCain's relationship with Keating. And when they have mentioned Keating, they have often questioned the propriety of the Obama campaign's decision to bring up the subject.
Remember: Barack Obama didn't have anything to do with Bill Ayers' wrongdoing. He was a young child at the time. McCain did have something to do with Keating's wrongdoing -- without McCain, the scandal would have been called the Keating Four, not the Keating Five.
And yet the media are quick to dismiss the Keating matter. When the topic came up on MSNBC earlier this week, Andrea Mitchell dismissed it as having occurred 20 years ago. Well, sure. But McCain was involved in it 20 years ago, unlike Bill Ayers' controversial activities, which occurred closer to 40 years ago, and which Barack Obama didn't have anything to do with.
The American people have made clear that they think the most important consideration in deciding who to vote for is the economy. An astounding 52 percent of Americans call "the economy and jobs" the "most important" issue to them in this election, according to the latest CBS/New York Times poll. Terrorism and national security came in a distant second, with only 11 percent.
John McCain and his campaign have made clear that they do not want the last few weeks of this campaign to be about the economy, the war in Iraq, Afghanistan, health care, the housing crisis, or the Constitution. They want it to be about personal associations.
Incredibly, much of the news media have sided with John McCain in treating Bill Ayers and ACORN as the most important topic facing the nation. Even worse, they are scrutinizing only Obama's relationships, not McCain's. It's bad enough that they're letting McCain, rather than the American people, set the parameters of the debate. The fact that they aren't applying those parameters to both candidates equally is an inexcusable double-standard.
And it's evidence that John McCain retains the support of his "base" -- the media.
* Conducted 10/9/08 using the search terms Barack Obama and ((Bill or William) w/2 Ayers
** Conducted 10/9/08 using the search terms John McCain and Gordon Liddy