When John McCain used distorted arguments to attack Barack Obama in the final presidential debate, you'd have expected the so-called "liberal media" to effectively rebut him and then offer equally combustible -- but fully documented -- charges against McCain.
Yet the major newspapers and networks have dropped the ball in their coverage of the Republican nominee. Intimidated by the McCain campaign in particular and conservatives in general, they've self-censored their coverage to the point that they deprive the American people of the information they need to make informed decisions.
To understand why, I keep returning to a conversation I had a few years ago with Daniel Schorr, the political commentator for National Public Radio. "Do you think the media bend so far over backward to avoid being labeled liberal that they become operationally conservative?" I asked him.
"Yes," he said.
Far more aggressive than traditional conservatives, McCain supporters are jumping at any word or phrase they can use to discredit big media. Hence, the kid-glove treatment of everything from McCain's war record, to his positions, to his associations,to his character. The intimidation runs so deep that reporters have stopped asking the hard questions that they're hired for.
The basis of McCain's appeal, reported uncritically in a recent front page New York Times story,"Writing Memorial, McCain Found a Narrative for Life," is the image of a heroic naval aviator steeled by five-and-one-half years of torture in a Hanoi prison. The article mentions that McCain never considered himself a hero, nor used his wartime service until it became useful to him in memoir-writing and politics. But the writer didn't follow up by investigating his service time.
You have to bypass the newspapers and networks and read less visible magazines, blogs, and books to get another view. A 12,000-word profile in Rolling Stone,"Make-Believe Maverick," that most major media have ignored describes how McCain piled up demerits at Annapolis, crashed three planes on non-combat missions (including one after he'd returned from Vietnam supposedly matured), and arguably stayed educated and airborne because of family connections (his father and grandfathers were admirals). Most of us would forgive him for attempting suicide and confessing to his jailers of being a "black criminal" and an "air pirate," because we ourselves would have wilted. Nonetheless, many fellow POWs are quick to point out that McCain violated the Code of Conduct that allows prisoners to give only their name, rank, birth date, and service number and forbids them from making "statements disloyal to my country."
No doubt, McCain's supporters would find much to defend in his war record. The point is, it should be debated and would be, if McCain were a Democrat, swift-boated by Republicans. We can start with Vietnam Veterans Against McCain, whose sparsely reported accusations charge the "Hanoi Hilton songbird" with giving his jailers flight plans and target schedules. But if the New York Times, or the Washington Post, or NBC had done due diligence on airman McCain, they would have had to beat off charges like "traitor!" and "unpatriotic!" that McCainiacs would have thrown at them.
To their credit, the media have reported McCain's flip-flops. Gliding with the tides of political convenience, he has reversed himself on numerous issues, including the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade abortion decision, tax cuts for the wealthy, flying the Confederate flag, and even torture. Little noted nor long remembered, some fellow Arizonans profess themselves tired of this act. "The guy has no core, his only principle is winning the election," Rob Haney, a Republican committeeman in McCain's home district, told The Nation's Max Blumenthal as reported in the article "McCain Mutiny", "He likes to call his campaign the 'straight talk express.' Well, we call it the 'forked tongue express.' "
It is not enough to report what a candidate says. When he lies, distorts, or smears, he should be held accountable in print or on the air. The McCain campaign says Obama would tax the middle class more than McCain would. We need to be reminded -- the Times measures up here -- that Obama would tax middle-class Americans less and give them more tax relief than McCain. Similarly, Republicans warn of rampant Socialism if Obama wins. Since Obama has never endorsed the government owning the means of production, journalists should report that Republicans are attacking him for no more than supporting such venerable government programs and institutions as Medicare, social security, national parks, the post office, and your local police and fire departments.
Perhaps because Obama hasn't made an issue of it, we have read and heard less about McCain's real extremist friends than Obama's imaginary ones. That should not have prevented investigative reporters from looking into the subject. After calling the late Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson of the Christian far-right "agents of intolerance," McCain more recently praised Falwell on "Meet the Press," then delivered a commencement address at his Liberty University. McCain has also palled around with convicted Watergate burglar and domestic terrorist G. Gordon Liddy, who currently has a radio talk show. "It's always a pleasure for me to come on your program, Gordon, and congratulations on your continued success and adherence to the principles and philosophies that keep our nation great," McCain told him.
But these associations have received tepid coverage at most. Why? Imagine McCain's wrath!
Which leads us to the matter of his character. Granted, the media have noted that he's run a cheap and nasty campaign at odds with his seemingly principled run in 2000. In truth, all of McCain's campaigns have run under a flag of convenience. As Jacob Weisberg wrote in Slate, in "(The Closet McCain Psst ... he's not really a conservative."), "He was a conservative before he was a liberal before he became a conservative again."
Some commentators hope his "better angels" would govern him as president. What better angels? McCain grossly insulted Chelsea Clinton in remarks at a GOP fundraiser and obscenely insulted his wife Cindy in front of reporters, but you have to go to places like "Rolling Stone" or The Raw Story | Book, where you can read in "The Real McCain", by Cliff Schecter how McCain's temper boiled over in a 1992 tirade to find out. If elected president, McCain will have to restrain his celebrated temper, knee-jerk responses and volatility -- liabilities increasingly ignored by big media other than "The New Yorker" because he has largely managed to control himself during the campaign.
According to a popular Internet source, Taegan Goddard's Political Wire, in an article called "McCain Blows His Top", "a former senior Bush administration official told . . . of at least three occasions where he saw McCain fly into a fit of rage, including one time when he got physical and actually pushed the person annoying him." (They aren't the only Republicans fearful of McCain outbursts; the former executive director of the Arizona GOP doesn't want McCain's finger on the button. See the video on YouTube.
Thanks to the McCain campaign's endless undercurrent about race ("the other," "not one of us"), the media have also made a mistake potentially harmful to the Obama campaign by constantly referring to him as African-American. Actually, Obama is bi-racial. His mostly single white mother, a feminist ahead of her time, raised him, in some periods on food stamps. His father was not African-American but Kenyan -- an important fact. Obama has no slavery in his heritage, and bears none of the burden or anger associated with the African-American experience. Indeed, he's as comfortable with whites as they should be with him. Having lived in the East, the Midwest, the West, Hawaii and Indonesia, he's the most universal presidential candidate we've ever had. Obama's appeal is post-racial in the Tiger Woods mode, but describing him as black or African-American may undercut it. By signing on to a label, with all the political polarization it involves, the media not only help the McCain campaign but prevent all of us from moving beyond static and unhelpful racial categories.
The founders, especially James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, considered the Fourth Estate the last bastion against tyranny. They wanted newspapers to find the truth and print it, not worry about how their coverage was perceived. During the current campaign, even the best of our media have fallen short everywhere but in their editorials and editorial columns.