Nightline proves PEJ study right

Airs fluff piece on the family of fourth-place candidate

Almost as if daring us to write something critical, last night ABC News’ Nightline aired what can only be called the ultimate political fluff piece, focusing on “the women” behind distant, also-ran Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

Fresh on the heels of a new Project for Excellence in Journalism study that found that a paltry 1 percent of stories written and broadcast about presidential candidates this year have focused on “records or past public performance,” Nightline tilts the numbers further away from substantive news by ignoring any hint of, well, news, in favor of a little image-polishing worthy of something cooked up by the McCain campaign’s own media department.

The main culprit here is Nightline co-anchor Cynthia McFadden, who gleefully serves up a long look at McCain’s wife, his mother, and his daughter on the campaign trail with the candidate, with a few brief cameos by the man himself, but then only to talk about how great the three women are. If you tuned in looking for policy proposals, new ideas (or even old ideas), you would have been sorely disappointed, as more attention was paid—in terms of time spent, and questions asked—to his daughter Megan’s high heels than to Iraq, Iran, abortion, taxes, North Korea, the S Chip bill, or the environment combined.

In other words, we now know that Megan, being barely more than five-feet tall, likes to wear high heels, and that while her grandmother approves her father does not. Sadly, we’re left to wonder what her mother thinks about her footwear.

The thing about the piece that truly galls is that McCain is so far behind in the polls, I can’t imagine what the point is of doing this human-interest story on his family. McFadden noted that McCain is polling in fourth place in the crucial primary state of South Carolina, and is well behind other Republican hopefuls in fundraising. Backing this up with some more hard numbers, a CNN poll taken in mid-October asked respondents: “Thinking about all the candidates currently running for president, both from the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, which one do you think is most likely to win the general election for president in November 2008?” McCain pulled in only 4 percent, well behind, Hillary Clinton (45 percent) Rudy Giuliani (16 percent), Barack Obama (8 percent) and Fred Thompson (5 percent).

McCain’s campaign has been moribund for months now, and his ability to bounce back has never looked more suspect, yet Nightline felt the need to run a long story about his family. Is there really nothing more important to talk about at this point in the race?

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.