John McCynic

A depressing gaming of the press

Today Neal Gabler chimed in on a favorite topic of late—press love for McCain—in a New York Times op-ed. His argument, in short, is that, yes, the press likes McCain for his military service, his amiability, his openness, and his apparent candor, but in 2008 “there is also something different and more complicated at work.” You see, McCain intentionally lets the press know he sees this all as a game and that he’s working them, which, in turn, the press appreciates because it echoes their own cynicism about their role in the political media complex. It’s all just a game, and we’re along for the ride.

That’s interesting, but as a journalist, I tend to ascribe most of the credit McCain gets to the simple access theory: the reason the press likes McCain is that he actually talks to the press. But Gabler, a well-known cultural critic, has a take worth considering.

According to the byline, he wrote his piece from Amagansett, New York—that well-known Hamptons campaign nexus. I thought “Could it really be true? Could this man who has, best I can tell, never ridden the Straight Talk Express, have solved the mystery?”

Well, the answer’s “Yes,” according to Time’s Michael Scherer:

Irony, as used by both McCain and Mike Huckabee, is a powerful force, especially in a country where very few actually believe what any politician (or reporter) is telling them. By being ironic, the candidate says, “Hey, wink wink, I know this is all a hoax, you can trust me.” Gabler’s piece is pretty close to spot on when it comes to the press.

If Scherer really believes this, how embarrassing! As Gabler points out, McCain gets away with changing his positions, displaying monumental ignorance, and slandering his opponents because he has clued in the press first. They can’t seriously police such political sins, because, with a wink and a nudge, he warned the press not to take him seriously. They don’t even have to take his positions seriously—considering his history of position switching, there’s ample evidence he doesn’t either.

There’s a huge problem here: McCain, should he become president, will actually, you know, be running the country.

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.