Free Ride: John McCain and the Media
By David Brock and Paul Waldman
Anchor Books, New York, 2008
A love affair took place aboard John McCain’s Straight Talk Express during the 2000 presidential primaries, one truly unique in the history of American political journalism. And it has hardly waned in the years since. The media, usually known for their ravenous appetite for scandalous behavior, have conveniently left out the legendary tales of the senatori’s hair-trigger temper, his mean and vulgar sense of humor, and his questionable ties to shady characters. While reporters spill gallons of ink on McCain’s admirable qualities, they have shoved to the side his unattractive traits, features of the McCain personality and record that he is no doubt all too happy to have the public overlook.
The world of politics, with its dueling delusions and realities (and narratives and memes and frames and arcs), can be a bewildering and frustrating one for activists. Nowhere is this more the case than when confronted with the fundamental stories America tells itself about itself--and its leaders, its goals and its destiny. Some bedrock beliefs in this country appear to be almost hard-wired into our nationalistic DNA--"socialized" medicine is horrible, the "heartland" of America is the real America, taxes are bad bad bad bad, always.
And, of course: John McCain is a straight-talking maverick war hero.
This last "truism" is seemingly unshakeable to the general American public. It drives political observers mad, particularly liberal ones, and is clearly the impetus behind David Brock’s and Paul Waldman’s heroic attempt to debunk the myth that surrounds the presumptive Republican nominee. It will come as no surprise to Daily Kos readers that the traditional media is named in the book as the culprit in spreading unfounded glory and a reputation for honesty on behalf of the Arizona senator. After all, both authors are from Media Matters, press fact-checker extraordinaire, and the process of press corps co-optation has never been examined so closely nor documented so well as it is in Free Ride. Diagnosing the problem, of course, is only half the battle, but without taking a long look at how the seduction of a cynical media class proceeded, there is little hope of fighting the McCain image in the months leading up to November.
There is an air of scholarly frustration throughout Free Ride that proves impossible not to share. Underlying all the closely cited flip-flops, the look at what was left out of numerous press accounts, and numerous data charts concerning McCain performance ratings or number of Sunday morning press appearances, there is an inescapable constant of wonderment: Just how the hell, in the face of so much contrarian evidence, can McCain’s reputation as a straight-talker not only survive but continue to thrive? What’s wrong with these reporters?
The authors seem most incensed by the "maverick" appellation. They return to it repeatedly, how often McCain is named "maverick" with absolutely no evidence, as in the following passages:
The very word "maverick" implies not only independence but a willingness to take risks. But it is to understand the common thread running through McCain’s high-profile breaks with the GOP: in nearly every case, McCain took a position that was overwhelmingly popular with the public. [Emphasis in original.]
Campaign finance? Unpopular with the GOP, overwhelmingly popular with the public. Tobacco tax? Ditto.
There is nothing "maverick" at all about siding with the majority in public opinion polls and then blustering loudly that one is taking a risky political stand. Yet journalists never point this out. In fact, one of the more frustrating trends Brock and Waldman note is how extremely often the term, "maverick," is applied to McCain with absolutely no explanation as to why. News story after news story hooks the term to him and hauls him up the glorified reputation hill. After poring over coverage leading up to McCain’s 2000 run for the presidency, the authors comment:
What’s noteworthy about these stories is that they referred to McCain as a maverick without providing a single example or citation to explain exactly what made him so--not even bothering to mention campaign finance reform or tobacco. McCain’s maverick standing was simply noted, with the assumption that readers would know what the commentator was talking about.
This shared political conventional wisdom is created and sustained by co-opted reporters who now have years and years of investment in maintaining the assumptions of McCain’s moderation and his willingness to buck the system. Brock and Waldman aren’t trying to make the case that there is something evil about journalists, but there is indeed something insidious at work, it seems, when reporters are allowed to get up close and personal with the candidates they are assigned to cover.
Part of McCain’s success certainly lies in an astute instinctual understanding of PR, human relations and what makes a journalist’s job easier. His availability is legendary and part of a strategy he hit upon in the wake of the Keating Five scandal in the 1980’s. Answer question after question after question, give so much access the issue becomes stale and unmysterious, and eventually the controversy will disappear. This has worked best with the national press corps, which McCain has taken great care to court over the past couple of decades as his sights have been raised to higher office. The Arizona media, which has been on the receiving end of his ugly temper tantrums and freeze-outs, has quite different tales to tell about their "maverick" senator--and a great many are told in this this book.
Still, McCain’s fondness for the press--which he’s famously called his "base"--seems genuine enough in most cases. He likes hanging out in the back of that bus. He likes trading jokes, overexposing his dark side, mulling over patriotism and nationalistic greatness in the company of those ready to take down every word--or overlook the embarrassing ones. And as any psychologist worth his salt will tell you, it’s hard not to like someone who authentically likes you. Even if he’s feeding you lines of bullshit along the way.
One of McCain’s favorite (and most effective) ploys with the press, as explained by Brock and Waldman, plays on this very comradely dynamic between those bus riders and the candidate:
McCain is astute enough to realize that he can maintain his maverick credentials even when he engages in blatant pandering, simply by signaling to reporters that he feels bad about it.
Thus we have the instance of McCain backtracking in 2000 on his condemnation of the confederate flag in South Carolina while he read his repentance as if he were being held "hostage"--his own word from his autobiography, by the way--and the reporters duly recording his turnabout without approaching the kind of "flip flop" language John Kerry faced daily in the same presidential year. (And very little note made of McCain’s re-repentance of his repentance after the election, either).
Two other valuable McCain-specific insights are on offer in this book. The first has to do with what happens when McCain meets an issue .... and how the issue takes a back seat, with all publicity roads leading to the "maverick":
When an ordinary senator crosses party lines, he or she will join members of the other party and perhaps have occasional opportunities to be quoted or interviewed on the issue in question. But the larger story will remain one of partisan conflict, albeit with a senator here or there breaking party unity. When McCain crosses party lines, on the other hand, the story itself changes; it then becomes a story about John McCain and his rebellion.
A second observation is what the authors nail as McCain’s "ubiquity;" you dare not turn the television on on Sunday mornings if you don’t want to risk being subject to the maverick’s roguish and anachronistic charm:
... when John McCain does or says something, journalists consider it "news" in a way they don’t for most of his colleagues. The result is that, even apart from the positivity of the coverage he receives, McCain has reaped political benefit from simply being everywhere. Media ubiquity has contributed to his elevation to colossus status in American politics.
A large part of this colossus reputation is founded, of course, on McCain’s POW status during the Vietnam War, for which McCain has gotten credit for supposedly downplaying over the years. But the authors make a convincing case that far from not trading on his POW status, McCain has tossed it around quite frequently--often to shut people up who are challenging him. Much of the documentation provided in Free Ride also shows that often McCain doesn’t have to remind listeners or readers of his status--because the press is so gosh-darn eager to preemptively do so on his behalf. There’s an unnerving list in this book of the instances in which McCain’s imprisonment is mentioned, completely out of context; article upon article will identify him as a former POW, even when the issue addressed in the story has nothing at all to do with war or imprisonment or the military. It’s just part of the ether that accompanies the senator wherever he goes now, like the fact that he’s the son and grandson of admirals, or that he’s a "reformer." There is no longer any need to tether relevant identifications of who or what he is with the subject at hand.
For years, analysts have decried "pack journalism," the tendency of reporters to think alike, adopt the same perspectives, and chase the same stories. Nowhere is this problem more acute than on the presidential campaign trail, where reporters literally move in a pack. They ride the same bus or plane, stay in the same hotel, walk along together from event to event, and spend the bulk of their day confined to each other’s company. In that atmosphere, breaking away from the conventional wisdom becomes all but impossible.
Okay, now what? This conclusion--that reporters are pack animals and are unlikely to change their view or coverage of McCain--seems spot on. So what’s the electorate to do? I caught up with Paul Waldman a couple of days ago via email and asked him this very question: What are we as informed readers supposed to do with this information? How can we break this cycle of rapturous, superficial, non-fact-checking coverage of John McCain as we move into the electoral season. Here’s his response:
We will soon be posting on McCainsFreeRide.com an addendum to the book, looking at what McCain’s coverage has been like of late [, and updating some of the data in the book]. We’re also going to continue to publish analyses of the coverage of McCain [throughout the campaign] on the Free Ride website in the weeks and months ahead.
Our hope is that Free Ride will open up a conversation about the [myriad] many weaknesses (to say it nicely) in the coverage McCain has gotten over the years, and in the campaign thus far. Reporters have to be urged to step back and take another look at the way they’ve been talking about McCain, so they’ll stop simply repeating the same old words and phrases ("Maverick!" "Straight talk!") and start giving the public what they deserve: coverage that is as willing to discuss McCain’s weaknesses as his strengths, doesn’t assume McCain’s integrity but examines what he says and does to determine whether he’s demonstrating integrity, and generally judges McCain by the same standards as every other candidate.
The more people who talk to and about the press on the issue of McCain’s free ride, the more likely they are to listen and hear, and hopefully change their behavior in response. That means bloggers and diarists talking about it, and people contacting their media sources directly, through emails, phone calls, and letters. Reporters need to hear from their readers, listeners and viewers that we aren’t happy with what they’ve given us on John McCain. In other words, its fine if they go to McCain’s ranch for a BBQ but the flavor of the BBQ shouldn’t be lingering in their mouths when they go and write their story.
So fire up your engines, people. The free ride is over. You now have a handbook to help you get started on recognizing the most egregious, shilling reporting while covering McCain. Use it wisely, often and well.