The media's special relationship with John McCain

By anointing the war lover to be both serious and tough on national security, the press all but suppresses the most important debates the country needs.


Glenn Greenwald
March 20, 2008 4:09PM (UTC)

(updated below)

The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus yesterday discussed the reasons why there has been so little media attention paid to John McCain's repeated (though somehow perfectly innocent) "slips of the tongue" regarding the non-existent Iran-Al Qaeda connection, and I think her comments are the most revealing to date about how the media treats McCain (h/t Teddy at FDL):

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Ruth Marcus: I thought that was an odd comment from Sen. McCain, and I do think that it would have gotten a lot more attention were it not coming from someone who is generally judged to have a lot of foreign policy expertise.

Several minutes later, she said this:

Probably won't break through the chatter, and I agree, would be a bigger deal if the speaker had been different.

She then added this when asked again about McCain's "slips of the tongue":

He has seemed pretty knowledgeable about foreign policy and engaged in the issue when I've seen him, much more so than on domestic issues.

Reporters have already decided that John McCain is a Serious, Knowledgeable Foreign Policy Expert -- and an honorable, truth-telling gentleman -- and therefore there is no reason to tell voters about evidence that demonstrates that he's anything but that. Evidence that reflects poorly on McCain's foreign policy seriousness or character is actually suppressed or concealed because they think it can't be newsworthy, because such evidence just can't be true, by definition.

Amazingly, reporters who have long covered McCain themselves constantly admit that they accord McCain special, favorable treatment and don't even realize the deep corruption they're acknowledging. Here's what long-time McCain press corps member Ana Marie Cox of Time told Howie Kurtz a couple of weeks ago on CNN, when they were discussing the fact that reporter Elizabeth Bumiller had a somewhat heated argument with McCain over inconsistent statements McCain had made about whether to be John Kerry's running mate:

COX: Well, you just saw it. It's true that he can -- especially -- it's almost always someone who has not -- who hasn't been with the campaign, you know, through it all that's going to make a call that makes him look bad. . .

I think what happens is that you -- if you've been covering him for a long time, there's a sense that, well, he does that all the time, it's not worth reporting, because he does -- he's a cranky old man. I mean, to be quite frank. . . . And also, we wrote it off to, like, you know, he hadn't had his fifth cup of Starbucks today.

Only the reporters new to the traveling John McCain Show -- not his long-time friends and admirers -- would "make a call that makes him look bad" because the press veterans know that that's just how lovable, cranky old Uncle John is sometimes, and there's no reason to go and make an issue of it. I taped a BloggingheadsTV session with Cox last week about these issues (which sadly may end up never being posted due to technical difficulties for which I am shamefully responsible), and during that, she argued that reporters' socializing with McCain can actually help them do their jobs better.

Identically, last night Keith Olbermann showed video of McCain's repeated invocation of the Iran-Al Qaeda link. After that, Olbermann's guest, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, said essentially the same thing as Marcus and Cox when Olbermann kept pushing him to acknowledge that McCain's serial "tongue slippage" was reflective of either profoundly disturbing (a) ignorance or (b) a Cheneyite eagerness to lie about the Middle East. Here's what Alter said (h/t RMP):

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Well, first of all, this is something that John McCain and those of us who have covered him for many years are familiar with. This kind of - it's almost like out of the old Saturday Night Live skit where Chris Farely goes: "I'm so stupid" and bangs himself on the forehead and gets kind of charm points for admitting having slipped up. There's a fatigue and it is a very tiring doing all this traveling and that kind of thing. Or just sort of human error.

So he's gotten a lot of breaks over the years for being imprecise, in part because there's a lot of fatigue with playing gotcha games with all of these politicians. At a certain point it does get a little silly.

To be fair, Alter thereafter pointed out that McCain was trying to "conflate" Al Qaeda and Iran and "mess a little with the facts," but he was plainly reluctant to agree that this was reflective of any serious ignorance or, more likely, deliberate deceit on the part of McCain. He thus went on again to dismiss the whole episode as nothing more than "a little bit of a slip," decreed McCain to be "a smart guy," and claimed "he corrected it." Watch the video of Alter's commentary and his reluctance meaningfully to condemn either McCain's knowledge or his character is glaringly apparent.

To varying degrees, Marcus, Alter and Cox are all perceived to be "liberal" pundits and yet their affection and deep respect for John McCain, like most of their colleagues, oozes from every word they utter about him (Alter went on to warn Democrats not to "underplay" the Iranian menace because, he said, "Iran is making mischief inside Iraq"). The tepidness of the TV "liberal" pundits when it comes to GOP political leaders is always a major factor in the imbalance of media coverage. As this last week yet again demonstrated, conservative commentators do not display any similar reluctance when it comes to eviscerating the character and fitness of Democratic candidates.

But there's an even more distortive aspect to all of this. The reality is that John McCain's understanding of foreign policy and his approach to national security has proven to be simplistic, destructive and idiotic. Nobody spewed more pre-invasion falsehoods and confused and misleading claims about Iraq than John McCain did. And he's been the Prime Cheerleader for one of the most destructive wars in U.S. history. The notion that he has expertise in foreign policy or sound judgment is a total myth, yet it's one that his press fans accept and enforce as orthodoxy.

McCain's simple-minded militarism, his ignorance about national security, and his moronic view that the U.S. should run the world through endless wars ought to be one of the most intensely debated issues in the campaign. But it won't be because -- as Marcus said -- the media has already decided that McCain is a Serious Expert in these matters and that national security is his strength, and evidence to the contrary won't be reported.

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Barack Obama, at least, wants to call this religious media belief into question. Here's what Obama said yesterday in a campaign statement:

But here is the stark reality: there is a security gap in this country -- a gap between the rhetoric of those who claim to be tough on national security, and the reality of growing insecurity caused by their decisions.

The disastrous and moronic equivalence between militarism and "toughness" should be a principal issue in the election because that false equivalence has long been a prime author of many of America's most incapacitating problems. But it won't be because, in Media Land, John McCain is deemed the National Security Tough Guy who keeps us safe despite everything we've seen over the last seven years and despite espousing views on war that the vast majority of Americans reject. As Bill Maher said this week on Hardball (H/t dday):

You know, we are one terrorist attack away from John McCain I'm sure rising in the polls by ten points because people think, oh, yeah, he is tougher. He is not tougher about the war. He's dumber about the war.

He's dumb about the war because he thinks by keeping troops in the heart of the Muslim world that's going to help the war on terror. That's exactly what started the war on terror. . .

That is why young Muslim men want to come here and blow themselves up and kill us. It is not about what happens in Iraq. We need to get out of Iraq not build bases there.

Ruth Marcus and her friends will actively prevent that debate because they already know that John McCain is a Serious Expert in National Security -- and also, even more importantly, a truth-teller who is really "tough on national security." So he could never be ignorant about such matters. He would never mislead. And, most of all, nothing he would do would ever make us "unsafe" because he's "Tough" on national security. Evidence suggesting otherwise -- such as McCain's repeated linkage of Al Qaeda and Iran -- must be distorted and wrong and thus not worthy of attention.

UPDATE: Here's what the supreme military and foreign policy expert John McCain said on CNN on September 12, 2002, when assuring Americans that "the president has embarked on a well planned effort to rid the world in this country of the threat of the use of weapons of mass destruction by Saddam Hussein":

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I am very certain that this military engagement will not be very difficult. It may entail the risk of American lives and treasure, but Saddam Hussein is vastly weaker than he was in 1991. He does not have the support of his people.

And I'd ask one question: What member of the Iraqi army is willing to die for Saddam Hussein when they know he's going to be taken out? So I don't think it's going to be nearly as difficult as some assume.

This is a man with deep and profound expertise in national security matters -- a real foreign policy genius. He's far too knowledgeable and Serious to make false statements about Iran and Al Qaeda being linked.

Meanwhile, Think Progress has found a fourth example of McCain making exactly the same claims about Iran and Al Qaeda -- this one from last month. The false claim that Iran is training Al Qaeda has been a staple in all sorts of circles for years, from The Weekly Standard and National Review to Lou Dobbs. The very idea that McCain kept repeating this falsehood only as a "misstatement" or "flub" or "brain fart" or any of the other excuses his media admirers are offering is completely absurd on its face.

Even David Broder seems to recognize that (h/t Jay Ackroyd):

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[McCain] twice mistakenly said that Iran was aiding the Sunni-based al-Qaeda in Iraq, not the Shiite militants -- until corrected by Lieberman, thus denting his claim to expertise in the region.

Actually, McCain said it four times (and counting), not twice, and the notion that it was "mistaken" -- rather than deliberate -- is unduly generous. Still, the Dean has pronounced that John McCain may not be as much of an expert in the Middle East as the Beltway has long assumed. If Broder can utter such blasphemy, shouldn't that pave the way for others to follow along?


Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

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Washington, D.c.



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