The NY Times piece on John McCain is no doubt, if not already, about to enter right into the Right Wing wheel house as far as further evidence of the biased, Left-Wing Media. However, it is the way this is being covered, not the article itself, which is a perfect example of everything wrong with the fourth estate.
First off, the article itself. It is not a liberal hit-job. In fact, the article itself really doesn’t reveal anything new to anyone who’s followed McCain’s career or remembers the attacks Bush made against him during the primaries in 2000. The article is in fact, misleading in its headline and the TV media’s presentation of it especially, because it is not about a sudden revelation of his relationship with a DC lobbyist. Rather, the article is about the personal difficulties of John McCain, a man of conviction who is trying to tread the line between quashing special interests, but being entangled by them, as well as a very personable man who often doesn’t have the political coldness to end friendships because of possible political implications. The article is quite researched, and it reads as such, with the relationship with Ms. Iseman as a contemporary example of how McCain has kept alive a friendship despite his advisor’s wishes.
I thought the article was well done in many respects, and it presents an interesting portrait of the paradoxes involved in politics. In fact it closes with McCain’s official statement without any rebuttal. That said the problem is not in the reporting but in the editorial staff and their decisions to publish the article on page one and present it in short as the foreshadowing of a coming sex scandal. This could have been handled better, and after reading the article, it’s not the headline grabbing page one story that I’d put on page one, perhaps a header with the article 4 pages in.
The larger problem is the fallout, specifically on the 24 hour networks that are playing this, as they have with everything in this election, in terms of their built in narratives. This election may be remembered for major upsets and underdogs, but it also may be remembered for the most superficial television news coverage in history. There are no issues being addressed, it’s all about opinion polls, identity politics, and narrative types: Hillary as the power-mad professional, Obama the great orator, McCain the maverick, etc.
One could make the case that two candidates’ biggest blunders have come as a consequence of playing into the media’s narrative of themselves, and not their own strengths. Hillary Clinton played into the inevitability card, and the experience mantra and that seems to be what has sunk her, even though the idea that a relatively young woman senator and the wife of an impeached president would be the inevitable, establishment choice, especially since the rise of Howard Dean in the DNC, seems quite strange. Mitt Romney too played into a similar bungle. To the media, Romney was the entitled rich boy, who was the uncomfortable darling of the social-right. And for too much of the election he played right along those uncomfortable lines, at times seeming to believe them, when in fact his strengths lied in his moderate and at times inclusive demeanor in regards to social issues while using that inclusiveness to get economic policies done.
The fact is that someone watching all of the unholy amount of analysis on any of the three 24 hour networks could come out not knowing where any of the candidates stand on the issues. We are dealing with some of the most important issues of our time, and yet from watching any of the network coverage, one would hear endless debate about demographics, and voter-blocks, including some rather irksome perpetuations of racial stereotypes, specifically in regards to Hispanics and Latinos and their relationships with Blacks. The punditry gives the analysis of this election the feel of sitting in on a Madison Avenue board meeting, instead of a political discourse. Another example: The media has sort of painted Hillary as a hawkish moderate democrat, yet in many respects her stances are more liberal than Obama’s in regard to social issues and healthcare (personally I think Obama’s plan has a high possibility of being a disaster), and Obama has displayed at times an uncomfortably interventionist foreign policy.
As to the myth of the Left-wing media, the truth is that the media is in the business of selling stories more than ideologies, and the right wing has often provided the press with the best publicity from something of a reactionary persecution complex. Inside every paper there is an uncomfortable mix of investigative reporters, some activists, a good share of social liberals, the very conservative advertising departments, and the large complex multi-national corporations who own the papers, who have to watch out for their various interests. One only has to remember the Clinton years to remember that it doesn’t matter who is in power, the media wants what sells, with what works and loves nothing more than a sex scandal. If the press truly was vested in the ideological left they’d have pursued the numerous allegations and in some cases legitimate stories about the Bush administration’s quasi-constitutional if not outright illegal handling of elements involved in their execution of the war on terror. Or hold the democratic congress accountable for their broken promises which they made to get elected. A congress content on doing whatever it takes to not do anything to not get a democrat elected in 08 while letting all sorts of problems go unsolved, and issues of importance go unaddressed. That seems to think a handful of baseball players are the biggest and most urgent problem facing America. Above all, if the media was any true media at all they’d actually remind us that we have American Soldiers still fighting wars in two countries, or that we have tens of thousands of Veterans who are still in need of the honor and care they deserve and have not gotten.
Back to John McCain. Senator McCain is an honorable man, but he is a flawed man. And like anyone who has spent three decades on Capitol Hill he has his fair share of mistakes, allegations, flip-flops, and regrettable relationships. But so has everyone who’s spent time there, done business there, and most important of all been successful there. He has had issues with lobbyists before, and yes, he did cheat on his first wife (and for disclosure’s sake he did vote to impeach President Clinton). But he also worked to co-sponsor strong campaign-finance reform, for which he’s been attacked for. That any of this should come as a surprise to the very people who used those imperfections against him in 2000, is quite silly.
If change is the theme of this election, than it should also apply to the media which is obliged to not only keep us addressed of the democratic discourse, but also be an active part of it. It has for too long failed us by reporting tawdry human train-wrecks, scopophilic interest stories, and by turning the national debate to a straw-man display which has the tenor of a middle-school cafeteria shouting match. It has not asked the right questions, had the guts to hold anyone accountable, or at times any questions, nor has it bothered to go below the superficial press releases and talking points, which end up in a he said/he said, either/or binary. It’s high-time for change, for the punting of punditry, the silencing of sensation. But we may have to cut our losses and just face the facts that broadcast journalism is dead, and that print journalism is still convulsing its dying limbs. We’re still seeing the effects of it, but the internet seems to be the great democratic tool for information and accountability that we need. And we should plan now to keep it that way before, and it is happening, regulations, taxes, and intervention stunt the neutrality and power of this medium.