Good News for People Who Love Bad News

A new, anti-press theme is beginning to emerge in John McCain's presidential campaign.

Ready or not, the race for the presidency has kicked into high gear, and the campaigns are already working overtime to try and shape the coverage of their candidates — and what better way to do that than use the press itself to bash how the press has covered your candidate?

In this morning’s Washington Post, Howard Kurtz arrives a little late to the party in figuring out that whatever residual good will the press may have held for John McCain following his 2000 presidential run has long since evaporated.

During the course of his column, in which he talks to some big-ticket political pundits, Kurtz stumbles across a brave new storyline emanating from the McCain camp and it’s supporters: that the less-than-fawning coverage McCain has received this year isn’t due to anything the candidate has done — no, of course not — but instead is a product of that old, biased, liberal media.

The charge comes up enough in the piece that it may very well be a scripted campaign strategy to try and blunt the bad (or at least not uncritical) coverage McCain has gotten this year. And it’s something to watch as the campaign progresses.

Mike Murphy, a McCain advisor during the 2000 campaign, (and given that he showed up in an NPR segment on McCain on Wednesday, we wonder if he’s still involved in the McCain campaign), kicks things off, saying that “the press has decided to view McCain through the prism of a war they almost unanimously oppose…When McCain deviates from Republican orthodoxy, it’s brave. When McCain deviates from the elite media’s orthodoxy, they write that he’s not brave, which is unfair. There’s a bit of a negative bandwagon going on.”

The Weekly Standard’s Fred Barnes also gets in on the act, slamming reporters “who took the Kool-Aid in 2000. They don’t allow for the notion that you can be a maverick while backing Bush on the war in Iraq. The fact that he is not gratuitously taking shots at Bush has driven the press away.”

This is followed by Steve Schmidt, a McCain strategist who says that the coverage this campaign cycle “is different to the degree that eight years after the 2000 campaign, we’re a nation at war, he has a principled position he believes in deeply, and some people covering the race may not share it.”

Some people, indeed!

Barnes comes back late in the piece to throw a little more fuel on this press-bashing fire, telling Kurtz that “having the press be mad at you will probably help with Republicans…They assume if the press is attacking you, you must be doing something right.”

Like any good politician, McCain rises above the din, telling Kurtz that he refuses to complain about the coverage he’s been receiving, and that “ninety-nine percent of the press corps reports what they observe in as objective a manner as possible.”

Despite his reluctance to say anything negative about the press, it’s foolish to think that McCain’s people are speaking out of turn, and hearing essentially the same line from one of his staffers, a former (and possibly future) staffer, and a friendly pundit makes one think that this is part of an overall strategy to paint McCain as the victim of an elite liberal media establishment that has been spurned.

It’s an old tactic, and one that has worked with varying degrees of success in the past. Remember back in 1992, when the Bush campaign, feeling maligned by the press, came up with the nifty bumper-sticker slogan: “Annoy the Media: Re-elect Bush?” It looks like the McCain campaign might be dusting off that bon mot — while hoping that their effort is more successful than its predecessor.

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