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Media loves McCain

Op-ed by Tim Graham, director of media analysis at the MRC, as printed in the February 19, 2000 edition of World magazine

By Tim Graham

John McCain's 18-point victory in the New Hampshire GOP primary put the media into high gear, with Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report all placing the Arizona senator on their cover. Newsweek's Jonathan Alter declared the obvious: Mr. McCain was drawing "the most positive press coverage of any Republican presidential contender since Dwight Eisenhower." 

A dramatic win can lead to dramatic coverage, but the media's recent pedal-to-the-metal promotion is just the latest swoon in a long-brewing love affair between Mr. McCain and reporters. Well before he won a primary, the three news weeklies put Mr. McCain on their cover, underlining that voters should take him seriously. ABC's Good Morning America offered the McCain campaign 10 interviews in the last five months of 1999, while other candidates didn't get one. When conservatives Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes came in a surprisingly strong second and third in the Iowa caucuses, Good Morning America responded by inviting Mr. McCain on again, even though he had decided to skip the caucuses. 

Why all this media favoritism? Reporters like Mr. Alter claim, "Reporters can be bought cheap with a little cooperation when we need it. For years, McCain has reliably returned press calls with a candid line or two." Should presidential timber be measured by the ability to call back reporters and flatter them brilliantly? 

But it's not about access. Mr. Forbes, Mr. Keyes, and Gary Bauer would have loved deciding, like Mr. McCain, how to fill a second bus with friendly reporters, but they didn't get the chance. What makes Mr. McCain different is his willingness to overturn GOP orthodoxy with his endorsement of "campaign finance reform," which threatens to shred Republican fundraising and strangle any troublesome conservative groups that would dare to air ads mentioning politicians at election time. 

Add to that Mr. McCain's prominent support for massive government intervention in the tobacco industry, including regressive cigarette taxes. He thought out loud about revising the Republican platform on abortion, and basks in support from the gay activists calling themselves the Log Cabin Republicans. As Mr. McCain's crusade drew strength from national media coverage, he grew more liberal, such as denouncing George W. Bush's tax cut proposal for giving too much money back to the rich. Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen reported in December: "McCain's people whisper, Don't worry. He's not really so anti-abortion. He'll come around on gay rights, gun control, and almost anything else you can name." 

The media lovefest revealed a shocking double standard on gaffes. U.S. News reporter Roger Simon passively reported Mr. McCain's use of the word gook, an ethnic slur against Vietnamese. Mr. McCain joked at a 1998 GOP fundraiser that Chelsea Clinton looked like the love child of Janet Reno and Hillary Clinton. No reporter blinked. While George W. Bush drew media brickbats for not knowing the leader of Chechnya, nobody passed it on when Mr. McCain couldn't name the current governor of Vermont. Fox News Channel recently showed the candidate making a crude sexual reference while calling on a woman reporter on her knees with a microphone. Fox was the only outlet to mention it. 

The same double standard also comes through in coverage of personal lives. When Newt Gingrich grew closer to power in the fall of 1994, Newsweek forwarded the story that Mr. Gingrich talked divorce with his first wife while she recovered from cancer in a hospital bed, and devoted paragraphs to enemies denouncing his personal behavior. Last year, Newsweek briefly noted Mr. McCain "cheated on his first wife, Carol, who had been seriously injured in a car accident when he was in Vietnam." But they claimed that for Mr. McCain, "even his failures just seem to deepen the character lines." 

As Mr. Alter explained: "Like his hero Teddy Roosevelt, he lives large and is willing to break china inside his own party, which always makes good copy." (Tell that to a pro-life Democrat.) What reporters are attempting to do is create a new Republican Party that casts aside its Reaganite past in favor of an older, more liberal-friendly Nelson Rockefeller model. U.S. News writer Kenneth Walsh was explicit: "Americans remain deeply skeptical of Washington on many levels, as Reagan urged, but his overall mantra seems hopelessly outdated." Voters will decide: Is the GOP the party of Reagan or the party of the press?

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