Journalists, McCain and the false Iran/al-Qaida link

Still more media stars admit there is a pervasive pro-McCain double standard in their coverage.

By Glenn Greenwald
Published March 24, 2008 11:39AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

Isn't it self-evident that this is a very serious problem for political journalism -- from Chuck Todd yesterday on Meet the Press (C&L has the video of this exchange here):

MR. RUSSERT: McCain had some problems when he was in Jordan, he talked about al-Qaeda being trained by the Iranians.

MR. TODD: Mm-hmm.

MR. RUSSERT: And then, then Lindsey Graham, who he was with, and then Joe Lieberman both tried to say to him, al-Qaeda is Sunni, not trained by the Shiite Iranian government. Does that kind of stumble hurt a McCain candidacy?

MR. TODD: . . . You know, he's -- because of the age issue, he can't ever look like he's having a senior moment. So instead, he's better off going ahead and saying, you know, OK, so he misspoke. Even if he gets dinged on the experience stuff, "Oh, he says he's Mr. Experience. Doesn't he know the difference between this stuff?" He's got enough of that in the bank, at least with the media, that he can get away with it. I mean, the irony to this is had either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama misspoke like that, it'd have been on a running loop, and it would become a, a big problem for a couple of days for them.

That exchange came only after several minutes of discussions of Jeremiah Wright (complete with the 1,000th showing of the same video snippet of his 9/11 sermon), followed by a debate over whether Bill Clinton questioned Barack Obama's patriotism and whether that makes Bill Clinton like Joseph McCarthy, followed by an analysis of whether Hillary lied about her plane's landing in Bosnia -- and only then did they get to the matter of McCain falsely (and repeatedly) claiming a link between Iran and Al Qaeda. And even then, the McCain topic was confined to this one exchange with Todd -- tacked on virtually at the end of the show.

But Todd's admission that journalists protect McCain because they're convinced he's a true expert in national security is nonetheless extraordinary because it is clearly what journalists -- by their own admission -- are doing. It echoes exactly what The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus said last week:

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

And numerous other journalists last week acknowledged much the same thing, dismissing the importance of the story on the ground that this is John McCain we're talking about, so it just can't be that he was ignorant about the Middle East or being deceitful, no matter how clearly the facts proved that he was. Many of them, like both Russert and Todd here, went out of their way to describe falsely what McCain did, to make it seem as though it was a one-time "stumble" (Russert) or just McCain "misspeaking" (Todd -- though to Todd's credit, he pointed out that McCain had been using this false claim repeatedly as a "talking point").

One can acknowledge that all of the topics on which the Meet the Press panel harped endlessly are legitimate topics to discuss. But by comparison to those petty sideshows, consider the towering significance of what McCain was really doing all of last week and even before that.

The vast bulk of the country believes they were deliberately deceived about the nature of the threat posed by Iraq. And a principal reason why we ended up in Iraq is because the Bush administration was permitted to spew all sorts of falsehoods about the Iraqi threat while the media uncritically passed along those falsehoods, depicting Bush officials as Serious, honorable national security protectors whose word could be trusted and whose knowledge was beyond questioning.

And now -- by their own admission -- they're doing exactly the same thing with McCain. These Iran/Al Qaeda episodes occurred when McCain was traveling around the Middle East with his closest ally, warmonger Joe Lieberman -- who has already explicitly advocated an American military attack on Iran -- and it involved McCain's repeatedly making patently false assertions in order to tie Iran to Al Qaeda and to exaggerate wildly the Iranian threat, exactly the sort of deceit that misled large majorities of Americans into believing that Saddam was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

And then, when McCain gets caught doing this, the establishment press corps comes right out and admits that they barely even consider it a real story because it was something that was done by John McCain, as opposed to Clinton, Obama or some Unserious liberal war opponent. It was just a momentary "stumble" that can't possibly call into question something as certain and beyond reproach as McCain's expertise and honor.

Garden-variety media criticism consists of nothing more than each side just reflexively complaining, with little or no proof, that their side is being treated unfairly. But with McCain, that exercise is unnecessary. Journalists themselves continuously acknowledge without much shame that they treat McCain differently, and better, because they have such a high opinion of him. Here's what Time's Ana Marie Cox told Howie Kurtz earlier this year:

The journalists who covered McCain in 2000 feel very self-conscious about the criticism that the press came under for apparently being so taken with John McCain. There's a sense that the first time was so fun and exciting, but this time we're really going to be sober and critical and the dispassionate observers we're supposed to be.

That rehabilitative project doesn't seem to be working out too well. While media stars focus incessantly on petty Democratic surrogate wars and what Time's Michael Scherer aptly calls "phony second-degree scandals," here is John McCain serially engaging in a replica of the worst and most destructive behavior of the Bush administration -- spewing outright falsehoods about a country that he may attack and which his most stalwart allies want to attack -- and journalists have decided that it's not newsworthy because McCain is far too good, smart and honest to be depicted in such unflattering terms, just like George Bush, Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld and Colin Powell were.

* * * * *

I was on Antiwar Radio with Scott Horton a couple of days ago to talk about these McCain episodes (as well as issues relating to the FISA and telecom amnesty victory). That interview can be heard here.

UPDATE: The media's ongoing faith in John McCain's foreign policy expertise and wisdom -- despite his full-throated advocacy of the invasion of Iraq -- ties back perfectly to the Anne-Marie Slaughter discussion from late last week: there is no accountability and no loss of credibility for those who cheered on this supremely destructive war.

As ramoncreager says in comments regarding Chuck Todd's statement that "[McCain]'s got enough of that [national security expertise] in the bank, at least with the media":

Really, what kind of bank is Mr. Todd talking about? One that is engaging in sub-prime lending, no doubt. Only to these pundits could such a long history of being wrong about foreign policy issues constitute a positive bank balance.

I don't necessarily blame Todd -- he might have been describing rather than defending the media's favorable treatment of McCain -- but the point is the same. The political and media establishment are filled -- still -- with people who supported the war.

Therefore, those like McCain who supported the war are the ones who presumptively are serious experts in national security, while those like Obama who opposed the war are presumptively unserious and likely of questionable judgment. It really is so illustrative that the candidate who is most closely aligned with the Iraq disaster is still deemed by the press to be the one whose national security expertise and veracity can't be questioned.

UPDATE II: SomeNYGuy points to one of the worst, most inaccurate, and most biased defenses of McCain of all -- from an extremely unsurprising source, Howie Kurtz in The Washington Post:

Speaking of McCain, A.J. Rossmiller at Americablog jumps on his gaffe of saying Iran was training al-Qaeda operatives, which the senator corrected a moment later. . . . A blunder, to be sure, but can the Democratic candidates really argue that they know more about foreign policy?

Of course not; perish the thought. No Democrat -- or any other human being -- could ever possibly claim to know more about foreign policy than John McCain. His record over the last seven years is virtually perfect, establishing him as a wise and brilliant national security scholar.

And contrary to Kurtz's excuse that this was a "blunder" that "the senator corrected a moment later," McCain made the same statement three times (at least) before that without ever "correcting" it. Kurtz's claim is just false. He's hosting a live chat session today at noon EST where he can be asked about such matters. Shouldn't Kurtz retract his false claim that McCain immediately corrected his statements about Al Qaeda and Iran when, in fact, he said it repeatedly before that? And doesn't his repeated invocation of this standard, false neocon "talking point" strongly suggest a deliberate intent to deceive rather than a mere "blunder"?

UPDATE III: Several commenters here were able to submit questions to Kurtz on the McCain episodes, beginning with this one:

Acton, Mass.: Mr Kurtz, you have written about McCain's "gaffe of saying Iran was training al-Qaeda operatives, which the senator corrected a moment later." But McCain previously made that statement at least three times on his trip without correction. It is clear that this represents a severe policy misconception on McCain's part, not just a one-time "gaffe." So why are you (and the media in general) playing this as just a slip of the tongue?

Howard Kurtz: I was just recounting what happened. The fact that McCain has made this "mistake" before suggests that either that he believes Iran is actually training al-Qaeda operatives or is not being very careful about sticking to established facts.

The whole point, of course, is that Kurtz and so many of his colleagues "recounted what happened" with complete inaccuracy by suggesting it was a one-time "blunder" which McCain immediately corrected. Here, Kurtz is forced to acknowledge that it was a statement McCain repeatedly made. Thus, Kurtz said, this shows "either [a] that [McCain] believes Iran is actually training al-Qaeda operatives" (something which is clearly not true, since the McCain campaign retracted the statement) or [b] that McCain "is not being very careful about sticking to established facts."

So, McCain is "not being very careful about sticking to established facts" with regard to the threat posed by Iran -- meaning he's either lying or being completely reckless in trying to convince Americans of a nonexistent link between Iran and Al Qaeda. Isn't that a rather significant story for reasons too self-evident to require elaboration?

And then there is this:

Portland, Ore.: If John McCain "believes Iran is actually training al-Qaeda operatives or is not being very careful about sticking to established facts," then why does he have a reputation as someone who knows what he's talking about, or as a "straight talker"? What, exactly, is his "bank" of foreign policy experience based on? And is simply having opinions on foreign policy -- even if they're blatantly incorrect -- a reasonable bar for the media to claim that someone has "foreign policy experience"?

Howard Kurtz: You're welcome to criticize McCain's foreign policy views, but I think to say he doesn't have experience in this area is simply not true. He has more than Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush combined when they were presidential candidates. He led a Navy squadron during the Vietnam War. He's been in the forefront of national security debates for two decades. He just completed his eighth visit to Iraq. He was a major proponent of the surge. Now experience isn't everything, as Obama frequently points out, citing the very experienced Cheney and Rumsfeld and how they botched the war. But McCain is not a newcomer to these matters.

The issue isn't whether he has "experience" but, instead, whether he has "expertise" -- meaning, does he know what he's talking about and is his judgment entitled to a presumption of reliability? The fact that a politician has worked on an issue for a long time doesn't mean they know what they're talking about, particularly where -- as in McCain's case -- their history is filled with destructively wrong positions and wildly inaccurate claims.

But the more important point here is this. Whether McCain's foreign policy views are entitled to respect is something that the voters ought to be deciding in the election. By deciding the question in advance in McCain's favor, and thus suppressing facts that show he's ignorant or deceitful when it comes to national security, the media is trying to decide something in McCain's favor -- namely, whether he's trustworthy on national security -- that ought to be decided by voters. How about just having journalists do their jobs and report newsworthy events such as McCain's serial misstatements on Iran and let voters decide if his national security posture is entitled to respect?

Glenn Greenwald

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