McCain Campaign At War With Old Media New York Times And New Media The Politico
Republican Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain clearly is a wartime presidential candidate, giving out signs that he’ll be a tough wartime President.
At war with the old — and now the new — news media, that is….
In the past 24 hours, McCain’s side has accused the New York Times of seeking to undermine their campaign and shill for Democrat Barack Obama. And when a reporter for the increasingly popular The Politico website sought a clarification on a few things, a McCain rep accused that reporter of also being “in the tank” for Obama as well. It’s an irony for a candidate who long had a reputation of working well with the press and whose campaign is far more diligent in informing and cultivating the new media than Obama’s.
We’ve run posts here before noting the increasingly negative line the McCain campaign has taken towards the press, essentially using the press as a wedge issue, which fires up the GOP’s conservative base. A certain amount of that can be expected in political campaigns when one side seeks to influence the press into going easy on their side and getting tougher on the other. But the McCain campaign has now taken it to a new level. And the likely outcome could be a double-edge sword. Particularly because in its latest chapter of At War With The Press the McCain campaign got some of its facts wrong when complaining about the Times.
This latest brou-ha-ha is worth looking at in some detail. Ben Smith’s piece in The Politico — the popular and growing new media website that is now apparently considered an enemy along with the New York Times — is the starting point:
Sen. John McCain’s top campaign aides convened a conference call today to complain of being called “liars.” They pressed the media to scrutinize specific elements of Sen. Barack Obama’s record.
But the call was so rife with simple, often inexplicable misstatements of fact that it may have had the opposite effect: to deepen the perception, dangerous to McCain, that he and his aides have little regard for factual accuracy.
The errors in McCain strategist Steve Schmidt’s charges against Obama and Sen. Joe Biden were particularly notable because they seemed unnecessary. Schmidt repeatedly gilded the lily: He exaggerated the Biden family’s already problematic ties to the credit card industry; Obama’s embarrassing relationship with a 1960s radical; and an Obama supporter’s over-the-top attack on Sarah Palin when — in each case — the truth would have been damaging enough.
“Any time the Obama campaign is criticized at any level, the critics are immediately derided as liars,” Schmidt told reporters.
But as he went on to list a series of stories he thought reporters should be writing about Obama and Biden, in almost every instance he got the details wrong.
Significance: Due to accuracy problems, the press (which is not monolithic) is now cross-checking each McCain campaign assertion. Expect this press scrutiny to increase. There’s more in Smith’s piece but here is the kicker:
Asked about the series of errors, McCain aides could not provide evidence to back up Schmidt’s assertions.
One McCain aide, Michael Goldfarb, said Politico was “quibbling with ridiculously small details when the basic things are completely right.”
Another, Brian Rogers, responded more directly:
“You are in the tank,” he e-mailed.
What this suggests:
1. The campaign’s style is to try and discredit those who are questioning or interfere with its message or goals.
2. The press will likely be momentarily-cowed because reporters and editors don’t want to lose access to McCain and see the only interviews he does do appearing on Fox News.
3. If a prediction is made about how a candidate will govern based on how he runs his campaign, the attack mode style of the McCain campaign suggests that if McCain wins the country will be in for a polarizing four years where those who question or oppose will be labeled as political hacks with their motives questioned. This is in contrast to the John McCain of 2000, who is increasingly as hard to spot these days as a pay telephone booth.
4. The media’s political narratives are not always fair or accurate but often resemble type-casting done in Hollywood. This will feed into the ongoing narrative of the McCain campaign as anything but a Straight Talking Express. Anytime the campaign is proven wrong with a fact or found to distort, it will add to the accumulating negative narrative.
But not everyone agrees with this analysis by yours truly. For instance, the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza writes:
The McCain campaign’s relationship with the New York Times has been, how do we say it, testy, for quite some time. That relationship (or lack thereof) is generally traced to the months long battle between the paper and the campaign over the publishing of a story regarding McCain’s relationship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman.
Attacking the New York Times — and the media generally — is a smart strategic move when it comes to uniting the Republican base behind McCain. While that base has never felt warmly toward McCain, they feel even less warmly toward the media in general, and the New York Times in particular. It’s the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” argument and it has worked extremely well for the McCain campaign to date.
Cillizza doesn’t think going after the media will have much of an impact on most independent and undecided voters, especially because this is a “process” story.
But, Schmidt’s tirade against the media may have a different goal. Working the referees is a common tactic in presidential campaigns and Schmidt’s remarks seem to be as much about laying a layer of guilt on the media for what he believes is an unfair approach to the coverage of the two candidates to date.
Here’s some other reaction to the McCain camp’s war with the new and old media:
–The Christian Science Monitor weblog’s headline is McCain aide blows gasket, rips New York Times and here’s part of the post:
There are many ways to get things done in the world of diplomacy. You can kill ‘em with kindness, or you can just try to kill ‘em.
On a conference call today with reporters on the topic of the New York Times, John McCain strategist Steve Schmidt chose option B.
It’s not as though Schmidt and the New York Times were once like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston – the two never took long walks in the park, giggling about ponies, gumdrops, and having kids. There’s a festering history. And today marked another chapter.
…Why’d he do it? Everyone seems to be using the sports analogy of “working the refs.” If he complains enough, the other media organizations will back down and play equalizer. You know, like a bald Phil Jackson.
Or maybe more like a bald Lou Piniella. Former Bush Press Secretary Ari Fleischer compares it to baseball anyway.
“I think Steve was accurately reflecting the views of his campaign,” Fleischer wrote in an email to The Vote blog. “Just about every Republican campaign feels that way about the media from time to time. Dealing with the press is sometimes a little like pitching in baseball – everyone once in a while you have to throw high and inside and hope it results in better coverage next time. Sometimes it does, most often, it does not.”
Their interaction with the press is in complete disarray. Steve Schmidt even lies when trying to point out others’ lies.
A reporter asks the McCain campaign to back up some basic claims made by a senior strategist in a public conference call.
The campaign refuses, with a prominent spokesperson accusing the reporter, Ben Smith, of being “in the tank.”
As in — no, we don’t have to justify what we say, and the fact that you would question our assertions is proof-positive that you’ve absorbed the Obama campaign’s worldview.
….Perhaps we can forgive the McCain campaign for this moment of irrationality; even as they’ve turned the press into a bugbear, the McCain campaign has managed to operate a functioning press office that answers reporters questions and its officials are generally helpful and polite.
The same officials who criticize reporters to our faces and behind our backs also help us understand policy, or get in touch with a campaign official, or explain the underpinnings of their tactics and stratagems.
Here’s hoping that today’s outburst was an aberration and not a sign that the campaign will be shutting down its press shop for good.
The timing is interesting, if you think about it. The McCain team first came after the media hard in the early-mid summer, sneering about Obama Love in the press corps. You’ll recall how, back then, Obama had all the momentum in the race and McCain was looking for a way to change the dynamic. Sound familiar?
He accused The Times of being an advocacy group for Mr. Obama — and accused the media of a litany of issues that he contended had not been pursued about Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden. In response, the Obama campaign sent out a list of articles written by this newspaper. And Ben Smith at The Politico has done a quick fact-check of nearly all Mr. Schmidt’s points today. Our own cursory checklist finds some to be exaggerations or distortions and some inaccurate — most of the issues Mr. Schmidt raised have been extensively investigated or reviewed by journalists.
Bill Keller, The Times’s executive editor, issued this statement in response to Mr. Schmidt’s attacks:
“The New York Times is committed to covering the candidates fully, fairly and aggressively. It’s our job to ask hard questions, fact-check their statements and their advertising, examine their programs, positions, biographies and advisers. Candidates and their campaign operatives are not always comfortable with that level of scrutiny, but it’s what our readers expect and deserve.”
The McCain camp quite touchy about being pegged as liars. Very upset at the NYT for revealing that Rick Davis got $2 million from Fannie and Freddie to help them fight off tighter regulation.
According to McCain enforcer Steve Schmidt, reporting on Davis’ Fannie/Freddie connection means the Times “is not today by any standard a journalistic organization.”
I guess Schmidt is pining for those 2002-2003 lickspittle days.
1. he’s hoping to work the refs: if he complains enough about press bias, we mainstream sorts will cower, cringe and try to seek false equivalences between the two campaigns.
2. the more time we spend covering this nonsense, the less we’ll spend on the real issues in this campaign.
Sorry, Steve. Not buying.
Make your own decision as to whether the McCain campaign is justified or not.
And if you think they’re not, well…you must be in the tank…