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Free Ride: John McCain and the Media Paperback – March 25, 2008
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McCain has received more favorable press than other politicians and has been portrayed as a moderate, a maverick, and a reformer. Brock and coauthor Waldman assert that that image is mythical, maintained by an elite national press that is carefully courted by McCain. In fact, McCain is quite politically conservative and has often said so. Moreover, the authors claim that after 25 years in politics, McCain is no maverick either. Even on the campaign reform act that partly bears his name, McCain’s position is less substantively meaningful and less risky than has been portrayed. The authors examine national press coverage versus the coverage of local media in Arizona, where he is better known. They also detail how McCain’s courting of the media has resulted in a bias in his favor. The national press has overlooked McCain’s record as well as his character flaws and shortcomings. The media has found virtue even in his poor performance in the 2000 presidential election, attributing it to the fact that he is not like other politicians. Failure to scrutinize McCain more closely, the authors conclude, is an object lesson in the media’s skewed political coverage. --Vanessa Bush
“The press loves McCain. We're his base.”
—Chris Matthews, MSNBC
“John McCain is clearly the Washington media's favorite Republican.” —Brit Hume, Fox News
“The media, of course, loves John McCain because it seems like he's back to the old John McCain.” —David Shuster, MSNBC
“I think every last one of them [reporters] would move to Massachusetts and marry John McCain if they could.”
—Joe Scarborough, MSNBC
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The contrast in how local Arizona media and national media portray him is striking. Curiously, rather than deny pro-McCain bias or simply stay silent on the matter, national media figures openly state they admire the man. The numerous quotes and passages taken from multiple sources make the authors' case well, even without their additional analysis and prose.
That the authors, who write for an avowedly liberal organization and published this in early 2008, manage to stay so even handed in their analysis and don't smear McCain's character is to be commended. Unsurprisingly, the same even handedness makes the book fairly dull reading. The evidence they provide is clear. The book has decent organization, though a few points and examples are repeated multiple times. But when you get down to it, one person and how the media treats him sounds much like a topic to an academic paper, and Free Ride is about as engaging to read as one.
I read this in September 2013 when proposed US involvement in Syria's civil war was all over the news and deeply controversial. President Obama and the congressional leadership from both parties who supported the proposal received strong pushback for their stance on this. Political analysts had a field day over how Syria will hurt approval ratings and how it could damage so-and-so or their party's chances in the 2014 elections. But while John McCain was one of Obama's biggest supporters on this (somewhat ironic given their usual relationship), the media held this up as an example of bipartisanship while keeping him out of reporting on the controversy. Coverage of other politicians who crossed party lines was far less glowing. At one point, McCain was even videotaped playing poker on his cell phone during a briefing on Syria. This would have become a controversy in and of itself had it been anyone else, but instead it became a comedic footnote in the Syria debate that I ended up finding out about from the Daily Show. It was like watching this book on TV; the media's coverage of McCain on this matter has been exactly what the authors describe here as if reporters used Free Ride as a how-to book.
He is styled as a self-effacing war hero who never likes to bring up his captivity in public, except he continually manages to do so. Phrases like: "I haven't been asked so many questions since I was interrogated in Hanoi," or "I missed Woodstock, I was someplace else," or "Well, the longest place I lived was in Hanoi for five and a half years." (He actually grew up in the suburbs outside of D.C.). Even though the Senate and the House of Representatives are filled with people who served honorably and bravely, their names are never associated with their experience. For John McCain, the press will mention this experience of yesteryear almost as if it is a subtitle every time his name is written or spoken. On the other hand, if John Kerry mentions his service to his country, it won't be long before the media will accuse him of trying to exploit his record for political gain--not so for the Arizona senator.
John McCain is a maverick and a moderate. If a maverick is defined as a person who goes against the grain and is willing to take risks, particularly political ones, he isn't it. John McCain has only bucked his party on issues that have already been popular with the public such as finance reform, immigration, and tobacco. His bill at finance reform was toothless to the point of being ineffectual except in helping republicans. Although against lobbying, McCain has a number of lobbyists who have, and are working on behalf of his campaign.
Real mavericks such as Russ Feingold who was the only one to vote against the Patriot Act, a truly unpopular thing to do shortly after the attack of 9/11, is never referred to in the media as a maverick. Other republicans such as Lincoln Chaffee, Susan Collins, and Olympia Snowe have voted against their own party far more often than the "media-labeled maverick."
McCain, the "moderate" has voted more often with his party than almost anyone else, and that means voting conservative. Over his legislative lifetime, he has averaged 80% voting the party line. The "Christian Coalition of America," as well as "Concerned Women of America," who want to bring "biblical principles into all levels of public policy," gave him high ratings. This is hardly the mark of a centrist. Surprisingly, the media make the excuse that McCain is making these concessions to achieve a worthy goal. According to the media, this is pandering to the party base by other politicians, but since their "intuition" is that it makes McCain "uncomfortable," it is a measure of his strength and character.
He is a straight-shooter. Unfortunately, no one has waffled or flip-flopped more than a large stack in the past eight years than McCain on tax cuts, ethanol, intelligent design, marriage, and anti-gay discrimination. The only thing he hasn't appeared to change his mind on is Roe v. Wade because no one knows for sure exactly where he stands having flip-flopped from against repeal, to indifference, to for its repeal.
Legislators in both houses frequently work both sides of the aisle to come to agreement and pass laws. When McCain has done it, it was because he was putting principle above party, when it has been others, the media reports how they have been pandering to the right or left e.g. Hillary Clinton said that reducing abortions could happen by providing greater funding for birth control, an issue she has always held. However, it didn't take long for the media to claim that she was pandering to the right, and sacrificing her principles.
The other free ride is that McCain is a man of character, which has been summed up by his experience as a prisoner of war. Nothing is mentioned of McCain's involvement in the Keating Five scandal where he tried to quash an investigation into the savings and loan malfeasance against his good friend and political campaign contributor, John Keating. There was considerable evidence that John McCain's office then leaked information to the press, which made the others involved appear to have played a larger role than McCain. He would later lie about the leaks under oath.
Finally, Brock and Waldman talk about the pack mentality amongst the media. They travel on the same planes and buses. They eat in the same restaurants and sleep in the same hotels. They talk and share notes. A pack mentality begins to form. When new media members hear the adulation of McCain from those who have been with him, the "Halo Effect" begins to form.
Yesterday, I watched Tim Russert mention McCain, the maverick on "Meet the Press." I think these authors might be on to something. See how many times between here and November you will hear or read about John McCain as a maverick, and John McCain, as a former P.O.W."
Brock and Waldman wonder when those in the media will be introspective enough to ask themselves if they are judging candidate McCain by a different standard than others, and if such thinking is a disservice to the public. To quote the authors: "One might even say the reporter who was willing to ask those questions might even be a maverick."
I couldn't have said it better.
Welch, Matt, "McCain: the Myth of a Maverick."
Waldman, Glenn, "Great American Hypocrites: Toppling the Big Myths of Republican Politics."
I recommend googling "Pygmalion Effect," or "Halo and Horns Effect" for those of you who might not be familiar with it.
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