The Press Sours on McCain

Remember all the jokes John McCain used to make about the press being his "base"? That's no longer the case. Plenty of writers ...
by | September 10, 2008

Remember all the jokes John McCain used to make about the press being his "base"? That's no longer the case.

Plenty of writers are calling McCain and Sarah Palin out as liars. James Fallows compares the press treatment of Palin's "Bridge to Nowhere" opposition claims with the mockery of Hillary Clinton's fabrications about dodging bullets in Bosnia. Joe Klein, who has been slowly falling out with McCain all year, says today "he is responsible for one of the sleaziest ads I've ever seen in presidential politics." CBS is calling on McCain to pull down a Web ad that uses Katie Couric in a way that's "misleading."

There are plenty more examples in this vein. Several things are going on here, which are worth thinking about.

One is that the press is falling out of love. For some reason, with McCain, they were slow to see that he's a politician and -- surprise -- sometimes politicians say things that aren't true. They have their love for Obama to fall back on, but this must hurt with an old flame like McCain.

One thing reporters don't like is when people lie to them. Many feel McCain is coming right close. They also don't like it if you won't talk to them. McCain made his name in yapping to reporters until they got sick of talking with him. Now his campaign has Palin in deep freeze.

The second issue is related to the first. Having been in love with McCain so long, reporters' feelings must be hurt that his campaign has been so mean and nasty to them lately.

Remember those old bumper stickers, "Annoy the Media -- Vote for Bush"? (They referred to the first President Bush.) We'll be seeing some variation on that by November.

Which brings me to my third point. It may not matter that leading members of the mainstream media are starting to sour on McCain. Jonathan Weisman had a story in The Washington Post today about how "untruths" can become facts if they're repeated often enough in the heat of a campaign's late stages:

John Feehery, a Republican strategist, said the campaign is entering a stage in which skirmishes over the facts are less important than the dominant themes that are forming voters' opinions of the candidates.

"The more the New York Times and The Washington Post go after Sarah Palin, the better off she is, because there's a bigger truth out there and the bigger truths are she's new, she's popular in Alaska and she is an insurgent," Feehery said. "As long as those are out there, these little facts don't really matter." (emphasis added)

If McCain supporters become convinced that the media giants have it in for their candidate, that will only create more of a bond with him. And it could help him among more independent voters, if it appears to lend credibility to his presentation of himself as a reformer willing to take on Washington institutions and mores.

It would hurt McCain, though, if the idea that he has become a liar willing to say anything to gain the presidency. By which I mean, if the notion that he is a liar becomes widely accepted and becomes part of the caricatured view of him, like his age.

I doubt that this will happen. There's not that much time. The press won't want to be seen as sucking up to Obama, or to offer further convincing evidence of same.

And it's hard to change the accepted persona of a well-known public figure. The central part of the McCain package is honor and sacrifice and "Straight Talk." It will take more than a few fibs to undermine all that.

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