A free ride for the Straight Talk Express?

An interview with Paul Waldman, coauthor of a new book on the relationship between John McCain and the press.

By Vincent Rossmeier
Published April 4, 2008 9:27PM (UTC)
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In their new book, "Free Ride: John McCain and the Media," authors Paul Waldman and David Brock critique the relationship between John McCain and the press. Brock, the president and CEO of liberal media watchdog Media Matters for America, and Waldman, a senior fellow at Media Matters, relied on published articles and statements made by journalists to support their portrait of what they say is the mainstream media's cozy relationship with McCain. (The book is a product of Media Matters Action Network, a partner organization of Media Matters for America.)

Brock and Waldman conclude that McCain receives more favorable media coverage than almost any other politician, and argue that while McCain has purposely cultivated a positive relationship with the media, the fault for the biased coverage rests squarely on the shoulders of the reporters asking (or not asking) him the questions. They also contend that reporters and pundits ignore or overlook McCain's faults, including his involvement in the Keating Five scandal and his close relationship with lobbyists, while constantly reaffirming his status as a "maverick." The book is a plea for reporters to shed their biases and cover McCain in the same way they do every other politician.


Recently, Salon spoke with Waldman about the maverick and the media.

Right from the start of the book, you're careful to point out that "Free Ride" is not a condemnation of John McCain but rather of the media's treatment of the candidate. How is it possible for the media to be more responsible for McCain's public image than McCain himself?

When you look over the course of the way this relationship has developed, what you see is that it's really more of a partnership than anything else. To a great extent, McCain is doing what every candidate tries to do, which is craft the best public image they possibly can. He's just better at it than anyone else. So, you can't condemn him for his efforts to charm the press, but you can condemn the press for basically falling for it.


The problem comes in when they get into an image of McCain that's locked in place, that's impervious to anything that happens on the campaign trail. The rules are just different for John McCain. With other candidates, the media will look at what the candidate says and does and then make assessments of the candidate based on those things. If a candidate flip-flops on a major issue, they will then ask whether this suggests that this person is a flip-flopper. When John McCain flip-flops, they don't take any note of it, and sometimes they don't even acknowledge that it happened. Because part of the image of McCain they have built up is that he doesn't do things for political expediency, that he is so full of integrity that no decision he ever makes is based on what he thinks the political effects will be. So you find incidents in the press where, for example, in recent days, you find people saying that John McCain resisted the urge to pander to his party's base on immigration. That's blatantly untrue. He did pander. He turned his position around on immigration. He used to be an advocate of comprehensive immigration reform and said that border security was not going to work unless you had comprehensive reform including a path to citizenship, and now he says that the only thing that's important is border security. And he was asked at one of the primary debates whether he would vote for his own bill on comprehensive reform and he said no. So that's a pretty clear flip-flop.

If it were a different candidate, if it were Mitt Romney, say, the press would say this is another issue that shows he has a real problem with principle, that he's willing to change his position if the political moment demands it. They don't say that about McCain because their story about him is already locked in. If they're going to be doing their jobs in the best possible way, they have to be willing to look at the events of the campaign and reevaluate if necessary the images they have about the candidates. The standard should be the same for any candidate.

How has McCain been able to cultivate this relationship with the media? If McCain's relationship with reporters is his greatest political asset, as you suggest in the book, why don't other politicians realize this and act in the same way?


That's something that's puzzled me for a long time, why more of them don't try. You see sporadic efforts on the part of candidates to befriend reporters, but no one does it to the extent McCain does. He took a calculated risk some time ago in the way that he dealt with reporters. Because it is a risk, I think other candidates are unwilling to do it. There are a lot of different pieces to his charming the press, but the most important one probably is this aspect of the personal relationship and that he doesn't go off the record. You can go on the bus and he will talk for hours without going off the record. Most candidates view that as an intolerable risk. They're so worried they're going to say something that will get them in trouble that when they are on the record, they're going to be extremely careful. And it generates into a vicious cycle.

What McCain figured out was that if he just talked and talked and talked, reporters would be so appreciative that when he did say something that was potentially problematic they wouldn't make a big deal out of it. There's a lot of other things he does along the way that turn out to be very smart. Things like telling self-deprecating stories, where he's not the hero of the story -- that's not something politicians normally do. But McCain realized he could build up a lot of goodwill if he said stuff about himself that was not all that complimentary. The response of the reporters was not going to be, "Oh, I'm going to put this in my story." The response was going to be, "Oh, what a great guy."


This isn't something McCain should necessarily be condemned for, but the question is whether a reporter should be so smitten with the idea that because McCain will say something that you don't ordinarily hear from a politician that they just use that as one more reason [to think] that John McCain is the coolest guy they've ever met. It was an investment and it has paid off handsomely.

You mention McCain's stance on intelligent design, his close relationship with lobbyists and the Keating Five scandal as potential flaws the media has overlooked. What are some of the other examples of media bias for McCain working in his favor?

There are numerous instances where he has said something that would have been really damaging for another candidate. Like in 2001, when he referred to Vietnamese as "gooks." We saw what happened to George Allen and "macaca." That could have been potentially fatal to another candidate. But the reporters just kind of said, "He's a POW, we'll give him a pass on that," and didn't put it in their stories.


And then you have lots of cases where the media writes a story about him, and when the events change, they don't change how the story is interpreted. Like the torture issue. You had this period where he was having this dramatic face-off with the Bush administration, and all the stories were about how because he was a POW and he was tortured, he was taking this principled stand against the leader of his party. And it just shows what a maverick he is and how courageous and principled he is. Then there was a compromise that was made and all the stories were about how John McCain triumphed over President Bush and made him blink. When it came to actually looking at the piece of legislation, it turned out that it really wasn't a triumph for John McCain, it was a triumph for George Bush. There were enough loopholes inserted that Bush basically reserved the right to torture as much as he wants as long as he can assert that what they are doing doesn't go by the name torture. He made that clear in a signing statement as well. McCain didn't say anything when those things happened, and the result of all that is that we don't know if the Bush administration is still torturing anybody. But it certainly put into that legislation the ability for Bush or a future president to use torture if he wants to. So it was a defeat for John McCain, but none of the reporting reflected that.

Is it dangerous to talk about the media as this unified, single entity? It's all individual reporters who are making decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Absolutely. And that's something that's important for people to understand. First of all, whenever there's a story that the press as a whole is getting wrong or missing, you can always find a reporter somewhere who got it right. We tend to adopt a sort of shorthand with the press and the media, but these are individual decisions made by individual reporters. And you can find stories about McCain that are more critical, that don't fall into the same standard tropes of calling him a maverick and a straight talker. But they are overwhelmed by the huge volume of stories that aren't more critical and do fall into those standard tropes.


You say that reporters who don't repeat the standard stories about John McCain are often from Arizona, the state McCain represents in the Senate. And his staff has said that if you really want to know McCain, you should ask reporters in Washington, not in Arizona. Are the reporters from Arizona marginalized?

It's an interesting question. Part of it may be that the national reporters don't consider Arizona to be big time enough. One of the things you see, for instance, is that a number of reporters from Chicago, like Lynn Sweet and Jim Warren, have had their profiles raised by the fact that they know a lot about Barack Obama. So they show up on television to comment on him. That hasn't happened with the Arizona reporters who know John McCain best.

I think that it may have something to do with the fact that their view often is very different than the view held by national reporters concerning John McCain. For somebody who has had this extraordinarily friendly relationship with the national press, the relationship that he's had over the years with the Arizona press has been remarkably contentious. Part of it has to do with the fact that they have not given him the same kind of free ride that he's gotten from the national media. Their coverage of him has been more warts and all. And in response, he has been extremely displeased with that and the relationship has been very testy. In 2000, he wouldn't even let [Kristin Mayes,] the reporter from the Arizona Republic, the largest newspaper in his home state, board the "Straight Talk Express," because their coverage had been too critical of him. The Arizona Republic is a fairly conservative paper. But their coverage hasn't been sufficiently glowing for his tastes.

You suggest that the media ignores his temper, but why is that something the media should focus on?


If they're going to make so much of their coverage about character, which they do every four years, then as a public we deserve to get a full picture of the character of the people who are running. With McCain, what you see when the character question comes up is three letters: POW. And that, as far as many in the press are concerned, is the beginning and the middle and the end of John McCain's character story. All you need to know is he suffered greatly and showed courage as a POW in Vietnam. That's certainly part of his story. But it's only a part.

The fact that McCain has this volcanic temper and can be extremely vindictive is something that people in Washington know, people in Arizona certainly know; both places are littered with people who have been the target of his ire, and if we're going to talk about character, then that's part of his story too. We should be able to see the good side and the bad side. One of the things we see about McCain which is different than the way other candidates get covered is that he gets defined by the most noble thing he ever did, the most praiseworthy parts of his character. Other candidates often get defined by the stupidest or least noble thing they ever did.

Another thing you argue in the book is that there's a media myth that McCain is nothing like George Bush. You state that most profiles ignore his ideological philosophy. But you argue that McCain is more conservative than Bush on foreign policy, not just with his support for the surge but also with his policy plan, titled the "Rogue State Rollback." And you write that "when McCain challenges Bush, it is proof that he is a maverick. When he cozies up to Bush, it is also proof of the same." But don't many candidates get away with this? Aren't many candidates allowed to pander? Why is McCain's situation so different?

It's the degree to which reporters ignore it and explain it away. There's a limit to which you can go on pandering before reporters say maybe that means this guy is a panderer. It's the question of if they're using that to make some assessment of who he is.


They've already decided that McCain is the guy that doesn't pander. So when he panders, what you often find is that when it gets reported, it's not a commentary on him, it's a commentary on the process. "How terrible it is that in order to get elected, you have to go do these things. Even someone as perfect John McCain has to engage in it, but you just know it's tearing him up inside." The tone of a lot of that coverage, it's never like [that of] other politicians, i.e., "John McCain will do whatever is necessary to get elected." That's not the conclusion that's drawn -- the conclusion is that he's different. Other politicians pander because they're panderers; John McCain panders but he can't stand it. He has no choice. Once the requirements of the political moment are taken care of, then he'll return to his true good self.

He can go and seek and get the endorsement of John Hagee, who has said things that are anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic, and thinks we should invade Iran to hasten the coming of Armageddon. McCain did that, and no one says, "This is a commentary on John McCain's character that he's willing to consort with these types of people." He can call Rod Parsley a spiritual guide. Despite the fact that Parsley is an out-and-out con artist who says that if you send him money, God will make you rich and he can heal babies born without brains, John McCain can get onstage with him and no one will say that this is a commentary on how brazenly ambitious he is and how he's willing to sell out principles to get elected. The assumption is that John McCain's principles are a given and iron-clad.

You work for Media Matters. Are you worried some will dismiss this book as a purely partisan attack on McCain?

It's certainly possible, but one of the interesting things about him is that a lot of conservatives have been alleging for some time that the media favors John McCain. One of the interesting things that I find is that when you talk to them there are some conservatives who think that McCain's a secret liberal. There are liberals who think this too. More than a few. But if you ask the conservatives why they think McCain is a liberal, [when] he's got this near-perfect conservative voting record, they say the media loves him so much, so he has to be a liberal.


We've yet to encounter anyone who has been able to take much issue with our central thesis. I don't think anybody who has been paying attention to the press over the last decade doubts that there's nobody who gets the coverage that McCain gets. Even Rick Davis, his campaign manager, said to the New York Times, last week or the week before, that McCain is the best "earned media" candidate in history. And earned media is a political term for press coverage. So his own campaign manager admits it. There's no question that, especially once he's the nominee, there will be some circling of the wagons by people who had previously had issues with him. There will be people who dismiss what we're saying, I'm sure, but that's almost inevitable. But I think the case that we lay out doesn't depend on your being a progressive to be persuaded by it. Our hope is that people of all political persuasions will take a look and maybe [reconsider] -- and we're also hoping that the press, the reporters themselves, will read it and take a step back and say, "OK, we've been telling the same old story about him for a long time now, and maybe it's time we took a second look." That's our real hope, that it will encourage reporters to do that.

You can't stop people who disagree with you politically from trying to dismiss you simply because of the perspective you're coming from. But we think we've laid out a pretty convincing case.

Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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