McCain and the Lobbyist: Will Journalists Derail His Straight Talk Express?
I gave a speech yesterday to a community group and made the mistake of bringing up perceived political bias in the media. Usually, I try to explain why people on the right think mainstream media is biased to the left (our aggressive pursuit of social justice stories) and why people on the left think mainstream media is biased to the right (our support of corporatism, capitalism and materialism).
But these folks were having none of it. Many of the most vocal participants were conservatives, convinced that Rush Limbaugh and Fox News present the only "fair and balanced" reportage. My speech, which was contentious but ended on common ground, wound up with a fellow asking me in a portentous voice: "Tell me, honestly, what do you think of the New York Times?"
Given the newspaper's revelations yesterday about John McCain and his ties to a beautiful, 32-year-old female lobbyist, I wonder how my inquisitor would answer that question himself, now.
I'm not that old, but I still remember the days when a bombshell newspaper story would mostly produce one question: Did they get it right? But today's media have been so demonized -- and in a post Jayson Blair, Post-Judith Miller-age, rightly unmasked as occasionally dysfunctional -- bombshell political media stories bring a different question.
Indeed, that's the biggest question left following the New York Times' revelations that McCain aides interceded to make him back away from an apparently close friendship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman (okay, maybe the second-biggest question; the first being, did they, or didn't they?) The Times report was echoed by the Washington Post a few hours later, but rumors of this story surfaced in December; why did it take the Times and Post so long to publish?
Obviously, the Post's report reveals there was competition for the story, and rumors abound the New Republic is publishing a piece today on the fight within the Grey Lady over the delay of the story.
Congressional Quarterly columnist Craig Crawford has written some interesting stuff about how politicians have convinced the public to mistrust the media. I found myself thinking about his work this morning, as I parsed all the reasons why the New York Times wouldn't necessarily be gunning for McCain now: the newspaper endorsed him during the New York primary; the newspaper, along with other media outlets, has long been accused of being too soft on McCain; the newspaper didn't publish the allegations when the Republican primary was still in doubt, or when the general election was in full swing -- much more delicate times for the candidate.
There are even some bloggers implying that the Times held the story because they were intimidated by conservatives -- conveniently forgetting the way many politicians and pundits called for the Times to be prosecuted for treason in 2006 over its reporting on the Treasury Department's monitoring of financial networks for terrorist activity without oversight.
I liked this piece noting that there's no better time for McCain for this piece to hit print: It solidifies conservatives behind him as a victim of a liberal press, coming after he's sewn up the GOP nomination but before the general election, so voters have plenty of time to forget it. But then the author makes an uninformed observation, blaming the Times for endorsing McCain while its reporters were working on this story.
Those of us who know newspapers know that the editorial boards are separate from newsgathering operations. The editorial board likely werote its endorsement with little knowledge of the news side's McCain story beyond the rumors which surfaced in some press stories in December. Indeed, that separation is the primary argument editors use when people accuse the paper of reporting which serves its admittedly liberal op-ed focus.
It's an interesting paradox: people have complained about the press giving McCain a free ride because they like him so much. But when the New York Times tries to show there may be some hypocrisy behind his anti-lobbyist stance, they are criticized for trafficking in old news. And some of the same people who complain about an inaccurate, trigger happy press also grouse when the newspaper takes time in reporting a blockbuster story.
And as I think back to the fellow I met last night -- who wasn't buying my answer that the New York Times' problems have a lot less to do with political bias than he thinks -- I wonder what it would take to convince that guy anything printed in the Times was true.