Thursday, February 21, 2008

On Gods, Monsters, and Smoking Guns


I've been closely following this terribly interesting scandale du jour and watched Senator John McCain's presser this morning. And I have to say, if ever there was a biased bunch of media folk--a group so emotionally invested in the shiny narrative of War Hero Turned Maverick God, they can't see the obvious, business-as-usual reality before them even as it sprouts fangs and scales and claws--it's the morning crew at MSNBC.

Morning Joe kicked off at 6:00 am with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski complaining away about how the NYT was so irresponsible, how this non-story had no substance because the reporters didn't name the two independent sources from the campaign (I mean, if you were one of those people, wouldn't you be a bit scared?), and repeating over and over that This. Was. A. Non. Story.

In fact, it was such a non-story, they exclusively devoted their lede fifteen minutes to it.

Then, to buttress their case, the hosts brought on several people, including Serge F. Kovaleski (the reporter responsible for the NYT's "Old Friends Say Drugs Played Bit Part In Obama's Young Life" story.) Kovaleski underscored the point Ankush made in his post the other day: that newspapers don't like to spike stories when the sunk costs are high, and admitted that that was, indeed, why his own story ran, even though, despite his best efforts, there was really nothing new to say because he couldn't find anything on Obama that Obama himself had not already admitted in print. Kovaleski went on to speculate that perhaps his bosses had taken the same attitude toward this McCain story: that they had a lot invested in it, so they went ahead and printed it (implying that they did so regardless of the truth, whatever that might have been.)

Dismayed with the jaw-dropping one-sidedness I was witnessing--I mean, yeah, I get it, the MSM hearts The Maverick--I flicked around and found similarly-programmed talking heads on other cable news channels, all of whom were going on about the NYT being "the most liberal newspaper in America" and saying things like "of course they want to take McCain down".

One can only imagine these journalists jokers must have slept through the whole Judy Miller-Scooter Libby debacle, that they never read any of the Gore-bashing crapfest Maureen Dowd indulged in back in 2000, and that Bill Kristol's recent hiring went unnoticed. The most liberal newspaper in America? Not for many, many years. Not by any stretch of the imagination.

And, I would add, throughout my tour of the channels, I did not hear a single MSM hack mention that the Washington Post (that bastion of liberal ideology!) is also running the story, noting that Senator McCain did indeed engage in what he himself has long decried as "typical Washington tactics", including writing letters to the FCC on behalf of the focal point of this scandal--the lobbyist Vicki Iseman--and her clients:

In late 1999, McCain wrote two letters to the FCC urging a vote on the sale to Paxson of a Pittsburgh television station. The sale had been highly contentious in Pittsburgh and involved a multipronged lobbying effort among the parties to the deal.

At the time he sent the first letter, McCain had flown on Paxson's corporate jet four times to appear at campaign events and had received $20,000 in campaign donations from Paxson and its law firm. The second letter came on Dec. 10, a day after the company's jet ferried him to a Florida fundraiser that was held aboard a yacht in West Palm Beach.

McCain has argued that the letters merely urged a decision and did not call for action on Paxson's behalf. But when the letters became public, William E. Kennard, chairman of the FCC at the time, denounced them as "highly unusual" coming from McCain, whose committee chairmanship gave him oversight of the agency.

To my mind, the big story here--which is to say, the real problem for Senator McCain and his campaign--is not the existence or non-existence of an affair, past or present, with a woman who looks scarily like his current and former wives. I believe I speak for a majority of people in saying that I honestly don't give a rat's ass if a Powerful Politician is unfaithful to his or her first, second, or third spouse, or if he or she maintains an entire stable of girlfriends or boyfriends--or doesn't. I mean, so what? However--and this is the enormous however of our fractured fairy tale, boys and girls--it is a very big deal when said Powerful Politician accepts substantial monetary contributions from private corporate interests and quietly goes about hobnobbing with same--regardless of the "closeness" of his relationship to their lobbyists--using their private jets, and attending their fancy parties in Palm Beach (where, I assure you, even a modest hotel room costs four figures per night). Not, you understand, because it's wrong, per se, to live the high life--even when it's on someone else's dime, and yes, even when that someone else is clearly currying favor--because hey, our hero can always eat and run without as much as a bye-your-leave, right?

No, it is a big deal. Because at the very least--and I'm being charitable because the degrees of influence and sums of money in question are, at this point, fuzzy quantities--this behavior presents a dramatically different narrative from that which the Powerful Politician, the one whose sights, I'll remind you, are currently set on the highest office in the land, has all this time been proffering to the voters: My friends, I'm a different animal; I'm a straight-talker; I'm all about campaign finance reform--not for me the whole DC business-as-usual tack.

This is not a non-story. This is a huge story. With or without the sexy scandal angle.

UPDATE: With a twist of meta the likes of which you'll only see in political journalism, TNR's Gabriel Sherman offers some great in-depth analysis of the McCain story and the story-within-the-story. Apparently, the New York Times had been pouring reporters and resources into the scandal since late November, and all the usual forces and counter-forces conspired to keep the piece in limbo, for a while at least. Read it, and you'll come away with the same serious questions as to why the Times did not publish--and publish sooner--as opposed to why they did.

The McCain investigation began in November, after Rutenberg, who covers the political media and advertising beat, got a tip. Within a few days, Washington bureau chief Dean Baquet assigned Thompson and Labaton to join the project and, later, conservative beat reporter David Kirkpatrick to chip in as well. Labaton brought his expertise with regulatory issues to the team, and Thompson had done investigative work: At The Washington Post in the 1990s she had edited Michael Isikoff's reporting on the Paula Jones scandal, and in 2003 she broke the story that Strom Thurmond had secretly fathered a child with his family's black maid. Having four reporters thrown on the story showed just what a potential blockbuster the paper believed it might have.

From the outset, the Times reporters encountered stiff resistance from the McCain camp. After working on the story for several weeks, Thompson learned that McCain had personally retained Bill Clinton's former attorney Bob Bennett to defend himself against the Times' questioning. At the same time, two McCain campaign advisers, Mark Salter and Charlie Black, vigorously pressed the Times reporters to drop the matter. And in early December, McCain himself called Keller to deny the allegations on the record.

[...]

When the Times did finally publish the long-gestating investigation last night, the McCain camp immediately tried to train the glare back on the Gray Lady. In fact, McCain advisers stated that TNR's inquiries pressured the Times to publish its story before it was ready so this magazine wouldn't scoop the Times' piece. "They did this because The New Republic was going to run a story that looked back at the infighting there, the Judy Miller-type power struggles -- they decided that they would rather smear McCain than suffer a story that made The New York Times newsroom look bad," Salter told reporters last night in Toledo, Ohio.

This morning, after the piece ran, and as TNR's article was about to be posted, Keller finally responded to repeated requests for interviews. In an e-mail, he defended the substance, and the timing, of the story. "Our policy is, we publish stories when they are ready. 'Ready' means the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction, the subjects have all been given a full and fair chance to respond, and the reporting has been written up with all the proper context and caveats." Important as the story may indeed turn out to be, it may have provided the Times' critics with a few caveats too many.


Also at Cogitamus.

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