The Media Today

Remembering John McCain and his relationship with the press

August 27, 2018

When news broke Saturday evening that John McCain had died, it felt like the climax of a slow-motion eulogy that had been steadily playing out since the Arizona Senator announced his brain cancer diagnosis last summer. His obituary appeared on Sunday front pages of local and national newspapers, and coverage of his life and work dominated television broadcast for much of the weekend.

McCain’s five decades in public service—from prisoner of war to the cusp of the presidency—provided enough accomplishments, commendations, and contradictions to challenge any journalist attempting to sum up his life. His New York Times obit ran to more than 6,000 words. In the months leading up to his death, the gravity of his condition provided for a rare sort of memorializing, with a final memoir, numerous interviews, documentaries, and appreciations rolling in over the past year.

Though McCain could be prickly with the press, journalists remembered him as a lawmaker who was generous with his time, respectful of the media’s role, and possessor of a surprising sense of humor. His six terms in the Senate meant that McCain was a constant presence for the vast majority of national politics reporters. “I want to say thank you, John McCain,” CNN’s Dana Bash said in a tribute over the weekend. “Thank you for teaching reporters like me, who followed you around for a living, how to be serious, without taking ourselves too seriously.”

RELATED: The complicated task of covering John McCain’s final days

As the press came under attack by President Trump, McCain directly challenged the leader of his own party, defending the media in a Washington Post op-ed. “Journalists play a major role in the promotion and protection of democracy and our unalienable rights, and they must be able to do their jobs freely,” he wrote in January.

The press largely returned McCain’s love, often holding him up as the standard bearer for all that is decent and noble in American politics. This depiction, which at times verged on hagiography, glossed over some of McCain’s missteps and contradictions, even those—such as the choice of Sarah Palin to be his 2008 running mate—for which McCain later expressed regret.

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The evaluations of McCain’s legacy will continue this week and beyond, but it’s undeniable that he held a unique position in American politics. When The New York Times’s Sheryl Gay Stolberg asked him in 2015 what he wanted written on his tombstone, McCain responded, “He served his country.

Below, more on John McCain and the press.


Other notable stories

  • A gunman at a video game tournament in Jacksonville killed two people and wounded nine more before taking his own life. The event was being livestreamed as the shooting began, and a red laser dot was visible on one of the player’s chests just before shots rang out. CJR’s Sam Thielman tweeted that the moment was “some kind of uniquely technologized horror that I don’t think I’d ever witnessed before today.”
  • I really liked this piece—HuffPost used last Tuesday’s news barrage to examine how Americans consume information. In conjunction with YouGov, HuffPost asked 1,000 people, “In your own words, please describe what you would say happened in the news on Tuesday.” The topline numbers aren’t shocking, but it’s worth reading the individual responses to get a sense of varying media diets.
  • The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan notes the irony of the relationship between President Trump and the National Enquirer. “The National Enquirer, under David Pecker, did everything it could to put Donald Trump in the White House,” she writes. “And it is now inseparable from the legal and political troubles that may send him packing.”
  • In an “amicable” decision that was “a long time coming,” Jemele Hill will leave ESPN at the end of the month, reports James Andrew Miller. Hill’s departure comes as new ESPN President Jimmy Pitaro has stressed that the company will avoid dabbling in politics as it focuses on sports content.
  • CJR’s Mathew Ingram writes that Facebook and Google risk legitimizing China’s surveillance practices—and encouraging other countries to adopt similar policies—if the tech giants agree to government demands for censorship and data-sharing.

ICYMI: Trump’s media protector turns

Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.