Loose ends

››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Finally, for the first time this year, a prominent media figure asked John McCain about his relationship with G. Gordon Liddy last night.

Finally, for the first time this year, a prominent media figure asked John McCain about his relationship with G. Gordon Liddy last night.

The lack of media attention to the Liddy-McCain relationship is one of the clearest double standards in recent political history. McCain and the news media have devoted an extraordinary amount of attention to Barack Obama's ties to Bill Ayers, yet until last night, McCain hadn't been asked a single question* about his ties to Liddy, a convicted felon who has instructed his listeners on how best to shoot law-enforcement agents. Liddy has held a fundraiser for McCain at his home and describes the Arizona senator as an "old friend"; McCain has said he is "proud" of Liddy.

Imagine for a moment that Barack Obama had said he was "proud" of an "old friend" who urged people to shoot law-enforcement agents in the head. Do you think maybe he would have been asked a question or three about it? Do you think maybe there would have been more than the occasional passing mention in the news of the relationship? Of course there would have been.

Yet McCain hasn't been questioned about Liddy. The media have largely ignored the relationship, even while working themselves into a frenzy about Obama and Ayers. McCain's relationship with Liddy is obviously newsworthy in its own right, but coupled with his attacks on Obama over Ayers, it's a textbook case of hypocrisy -- exactly the sort of thing that political reporters supposedly drool over. But not when it's John McCain. When it's John McCain, the nation's leading news organizations band together in what is, in effect, a blackout of information that could be damaging to their longtime favorite.

Until last night, when McCain was finally asked, point-blank, about his relationship to Liddy and the similarities between that relationship and the Obama-Ayers relationship he has attacked so harshly.

Who finally asked the question? The New York Times? The Washington Post? CNN's "best political team on television"?

Nope.

David Letterman asked McCain about Liddy, putting the nation's journalists to shame in the process.

For years, political professionals, academics, and media watchdogs have lamented the fact that some Americans get their news from late-night comedians and other entertainment. As it turns out, that might be a good thing.

Unfortunately, after Letterman broke the media's embargo on questioning McCain's relationship with Liddy, reporters quickly pretended it never happened -- or, if they did mention it, downplayed the significance of the relationship. Time's Mark Halperin described Letterman "hound[ing]" McCain over his Ayers attacks, adding, "The late-night host doesn't let up on where the former Weather Underground leader fits into the campaign." But, inexplicably, Halperin didn't so much as mention that Letterman confronted McCain about his relationship with Liddy. Several news reports that did mention the Liddy exchange described him as a Watergate felon -- omitting Liddy's much more recent statements about shooting law enforcement personnel.

But the worst was MSNBC. This morning, the cable channel played a clip of McCain on Letterman -- but not the Liddy exchange. Then, immediately after the clip, MSNBC anchor Tamron Hall referenced the McCain attacks on Ayers. At no point did Hall mention Liddy.

* Or, if he has been asked, it hasn't been reported. Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman did ask McCain's campaign about Liddy back in the spring, but despite what reporters always claim about how open McCain is, Chapman didn't get a response.

Tax clarity

Two weeks ago, I wrote that too many news reports "simply repeat charges and counter-charges or obsess over minor details while failing to provide the big picture" and, in doing so, "obscure rather than clarify the candidates' proposals and positions." News reports about the candidates' tax plans, for example, often fail to make clear the most important facts: how much the plans cost, and how the cuts are distributed -- how much the typical middle-income taxpayer would save, how much a millionaire would save, etc.

Today's New York Times offers a perfect example. Reporting on the "plumber" John McCain referred to incessantly during Wednesday's debate, the Times purported to assess how he would fare under Barack Obama's tax plan.

Well, that's not quite right: The article didn't say a word about how the actual Joe Wurzelbacher would actually fare under Obama's tax plan. Instead, it focused on the effect Obama's tax plan would have on some hypothetical version of Joe Wurzelbacher who makes considerably more money than the actual Joe Wurzelbacher does.

The accompanying chart was even worse. It was titled "A Plumber's Tax Bill," but it didn't indicate how much the typical plumber would pay in taxes under Obama and McCain. Nor did it show how much an actual plumber would pay in taxes under Obama and McCain. Instead, it showed how much an imaginary plumber who is a partner in a two-person plumbing company that makes $280,000 a year after expenses would pay in taxes under the two candidates.

While The New York Times obscures the effects of the candidates' tax plans, last weekend's Parade magazine showed just how easy it is to get it right: "If your annual salary is less than $112,000, you'd pay less in taxes under Obama's plan; if your salary is higher, McCain would cut your taxes more." That took just 27 words -- 27 words that should be in every news report about the candidates' tax plans from now until Election Day. And Parade included an easy-to-read chart that showed how much people at various income levels would save under the two candidates' plans (or how much more they would pay, in the case of people making more than $227,000 a year).

Rehabbing McCain

Even while reporting critically on John McCain's campaign tactics over the past month or so, many Beltway journalists and pundits have been quick to assert that those tactics don't reflect the "real" McCain, or to bend over backward to suggest that he is not responsible for what his campaign is doing in his name. Last week, for example, David Gergen praised McCain for sending his staff and surrogates out to deliver the nastiest anti-Obama messages rather than doing it himself.

This week, two Time reporters enthusiastically threw themselves into the McCain reputation rehabilitation project. As Glenn Greenwald documented, Ana Marie Cox offered this defense of McCain:

COX: I think McCain in his heart of heart wants to win this fair and square. He wants to win this because he's the better candidate. He doesn't want to win this because people think Obama is a Muslim or is a terrorist or he's not really American. He wants to win this on his own merits. It upsets his sense of fair play -- to win -- to think that the support he's getting is because of what he thinks are bad reasons. . .

ANN ALTHOUSE: But in the last month or so, he's been losing ground, and resorting to this terrorist meme --

COX: I think that hasn't worked for them. I think they recognize that to the extent that that does work, that's not how McCain wants to win. I adore the guy. I think he's fantastic in many ways. I respect him, I admire his service to the country. I think ultimately he's very principled and, to coin a phrase, honorable. . . .

Never mind what John McCain has actually been saying and doing and what his campaign has been saying and doing: Ana Marie Cox is here to assure you that, in his heart of hearts, John McCain is an honorable and principled man with a sense of "fair play." Judge him not by his words, or his deeds -- judge him by what Ana Marie Cox thinks is in his heart!

Ana Marie Cox, by the way, is the "liberal" half of washingtonpost.com's "Both Sides" feature, in which she is paired with Tucker Carlson to provide Post readers a balanced "debate" of "the issues and latest developments." So "Both Sides" consists of a conservative ... and a liberal who "adores" John McCain. That isn't actual balance; that's Fox News "balance."

At least Cox makes clear that her defense of McCain is based not on what he has done, but on her reading of his heart. Her Time colleague Karen Tumulty announced yesterday that both campaigns are equally negative and pretended that her conclusion was based on actual data. It wasn't. The data Tumulty pointed to showed that just 26 percent of McCain's ads have been positive, compared to 39 percent (fully 50 percent more!) of Obama's.

You might be tempted to cut Tumulty some slack; the data she pointed to came from a statement by Ken Goldstein of the Wisconsin Advertising Project, which concluded that "the tone of the McCain and Obama campaigns has been absolutely identical." So maybe Tumulty didn't read closely enough to see that the data demonstrated the falsity of Goldstein's conclusion. But when the actual data was pointed out (in reader comments on Time's website, and by me on Media Matters' blog), Tumulty said she would "go with Wisconsin on this" -- that is, she still agreed with Goldstein's claim that the "tone" of the campaigns has been "absolutely identical."

But this really isn't a matter of interpretation. Ken Goldstein's data shows that Barack Obama has run many more positive ads and that a much higher proportion of Obama's ads have been positive. That isn't interpretation: That's what the data says, right there in Ken Goldstein's press release. Therefore, it is simply false to say the "tone" of the two advertising campaigns has been "absolutely identical." There's no way around this: It's false. No matter how you look at it, 26 and 39 are not "identical." Choosing to "go with" Goldstein's claim is deliberately choosing to be wrong.

The only question is: Why would Karen Tumulty choose to be wrong? Is it because it makes McCain look better? Is it because she blindly accepts Ken Goldstein's claims, even when Ken Goldstein's data prove them to be false? Is it because she rejects out of hand accurate statements made by Media Matters and several of her readers? None of those explanations would reflect well on her as a journalist, but other explanations do not readily present themselves.

(As for Goldstein himself: I attempted to contact him for an explanation yesterday afternoon. At 9:30 this morning, I attempted to contact the PR firm listed on his press release. As of 4 p.m. today, I have not heard back from either Goldstein or his representatives. If you, too, would like an explanation of how 26 is "absolutely identical" to 39, you can find contact information here and here.)

Fraudulent reporting

If you believe what you see in the news, you'd think that voter fraud is rampant. In fact, it is so rare as to be virtually non-existent. There is ample evidence that far more people are improperly prevented from voting each Election Day than illegally vote. And there's a long history of Republican voter-suppression efforts and of bogus GOP allegations of voter fraud.

You might think, then, that news organizations who have fallen for these phony Republican allegations in the past would react to current Republican allegations of voter fraud by thinking to themselves, "Not this time." That, instead, they'd focus on voter suppression and document the GOP's history of crying "wolf."

But that isn't really the way things work. When John McCain and the GOP say, "Jump," the media ask, "How high?" So the media are flooded with overheated news reports about alleged voter fraud.

Media Matters has extensively documented flawed reporting about voter fraud over the past week:

The debates: what was missing?

Time's Massimo Calabresi found great significance in the fact that McCain and Obama didn't talk about God during their debates:

In the nearly sixteen thousand words uttered last night in the debate between John McCain and Barack Obama, one was noticeably absent: God.

[...]

Still, the fact that both Obama and McCain chose so assiduously not to invoke "God" in any form in any of their debates is noteworthy, not least to people who care about the presence of religion in politics. "Whether intentional or not the discussion of God and the role of faith appears to have been relegated to the Saddleback forum in this general election," says Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, who calls the development "troubling."

Here's the presidential oath of office, in its entirety:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of the President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Nothing about "God" in there. Turns out the president's job is to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution." Given the way the current president has approached that job, you might think the Constitution would have been a big topic in the debates.

Well, in the three presidential debates, the only time the word "Constitution" was used was during a discussion of abortion during the final debate. That's a continuation of what happened during the primaries, when the journalists moderating the Democratic and Republican debates all but ignored the Constitution, executive power, and civil liberties.

And yet Time thinks what was missing from the debates was discussion of God.

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

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