Beg, Borrow, or Steal An Opinion

Time passes the buck on assessing McCain's jab at the NYT

Everyone loves to talk about John McCain’s complicated relationship with the media. CJR has previously considered The New York Times’s relationship with the McCain campaign. The latest news from the campaign trail is that McCain, the Silent Generation’s noisy spokesman, has fired back. Michael Scherer over at Time’s blog, Swampland, wrote about the McCain campaign’s attack on the Times and the paper’s article yesterday on McCain campaign manager Rick Davis. Scherer writes that McCain senior adviser Steve Schmidt:

[T]urned this public shaming up a notch by condemning the New York Times, easily the most influential newspaper in America, as a partisan rag in unusually blunt and categorical language.

“Whatever the New York Times once was, it is today not by any standard a journalistic organization. It is a pro-Obama advocacy organization,” Schmidt announced on a well attended conference call. “This is an organization that is completely, totally, 150 percent in the tank for the Democratic candidate.”

Forget about the mathematically questionable 150 percent for a minute. Discussions of purported liberal media bias can be valid ones and it might be legitimate to question whether the Times’s political coverage has been unduly pro-Obama. But Scherer doesn’t really address that question. Instead, he offers this:

This may be a nifty bit of misdirection. It may be a legitimate complaint. It may be a play to rile up the Republican base. (One of the McCain campaign’s best fund-raising days of the spring came the day after the New York Times suggested—without definitive evidence—that McCain had an inappropriate relationship with a lady lobbyist.) Whatever it is, it’s [sic] certainly will get the talkers talking, which is most definitely Schmidt’s intent.”

Whatever it is? The talkers are talking, but, evidently, Time is not; Michael Scherer’s analysis here is almost laughably incomplete. Schmidt’s complaint is pegged to yesterday’s Times story about McCain campaign manager Rick Davis’s ties to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Here’s the story’s lede:

Senator John McCain’s campaign manager was paid more than $30,000 a month for five years as president of an advocacy group set up by the mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to defend them against stricter regulations, current and former officials say.

Schmidt made the point that there were Obama donors and advisors connected to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, too. Technically, the Times acknowledged that very point (“[McCain] and his Democratic rival, Senator Barack Obama, have donors and advisers who are tied to the companies.”). But the article was, after all, about Davis and his relationship with the mortgage giants—specifically, his efforts to help them avoid further government regulation.

No one from Barack Obama’s campaign was paid tens of thousand of dollars a month to head an advocacy group set up to protect Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from regulations. While both presidential candidates are closely connected to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, it looks like McCain’s campaign was more closely (and more sinisterly) connected. So while it is likely that Times story is more damaging to McCain than to Obama, the story is also a reflection of reality.

This is what makes the Time piece so regrettable. The McCain campaign looked at a damaging story and proclaimed media bias, to deflect attention from the fact that the story is true. It’s just not good enough to for commentators to say “this could be one thing or it could be another.” It’s actually entirely valid—indeed it’s a journalist’s job—to assess whether the attack is misdirection or whether it’s a legitimate complaint. Do some reporting and pass an informed judgment. If that’s not a possibility, then don’t write about it in the first place.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Daniel Luzer is web editor of the Washington Monthly.