John McCain's surrogates
John McCain should be having a very bad week. Fortunately for him, McCain's unofficial surrogates -- also known as "reporters" -- have leaped to his defense on a range of topics.
Last week, I explained that despite obsessing over the fact that Hillary Clinton has not publicly released her tax returns, media are ignoring John McCain's failure to do so. If McCain were to release his tax returns, we might see, for example, additional details about the financial ties between McCain, his wife, and Charles Keating, a prime figure in the savings and loan scandals of the late 1980s. McCain and Keating vacationed together in the Bahamas, Keating gave McCain free use of his private jet (a violation of ethics rules; McCain eventually paid for the flights), and McCain's wife invested in a shopping mall with Keating. After McCain joined four other senators in urging federal regulators to go easy on Keating's savings and loan, McCain was reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee.
But reporters aren't asking about when John McCain will release his taxes, and for what years. Worse, some are falsely giving him credit for having already done so.
This week, ABC News chief investigative reporter Brian Ross told viewers "more than a year into the campaign, Senator Clinton, unlike Senators Obama and McCain, has still not released any of her tax returns. The campaign says those are coming too by April 15th. But there's been no explanation, Charlie, about why the delay for those."
But McCain hasn't released his tax returns. Nor has he given any "explanation" for the "delay" in doing so. Ross' report was more than a simple mistake, or false claim. It was a deeply revealing indication of ABC's complete lack of interest in McCain's finances.
Ross is ABC's "chief investigative reporter," yet he apparently has no interest at all in looking at McCain's tax returns. If he had any interest at all, he would know that they haven't been released. But Ross thinks they have been released -- meaning he has never tried to obtain or examine them.
Brian Ross wants to see Hillary Clinton's tax returns, even though -- unlike McCain -- she is not her party's de facto presidential nominee. But he has no interest in McCain's. Ross has time to give a misleading report about Barack Obama's finances that breaks no new ground -- but he doesn't care about McCain's finances.
Maybe Brian Ross is too busy searching through Hillary Clinton's schedules to try to determine where she was at the precise moments her husband was with Monica Lewinsky. That's a nasty, pointless little exercise with absolutely no news value whatsoever. No reporter with any judgment would think such a thing is a good idea, and any reporter with any dignity would refuse to carry out such an assignment. But that's how Brian Ross spent his Wednesday. Trying to determine if Hillary Clinton was in the Map Room or the Blue Room or Akron while her husband was with Lewinsky. That isn't anything that matters at all -- it is investigative gossip, not investigative reporting.
But Brian Ross and ABC think that kind of thing is more important than examining (or even glancing at) John McCain's tax returns.
This is no surprise, of course. After years of dishonestly obsessing over Whitewater, ABC couldn't be bothered to report a single word about new evidence that emerged during the 2000 campaign indicating that George W. Bush may have been guilty of insider trading when he dumped more than $800,000 worth of stock in a company on whose board he served. Not one word.
ABC's casual indifference to Bush's finances helped give us the Iraq war. Their similar lack of interest in McCain's may help give us a war with Iran.
But at least we know where Hillary Clinton was while her husband was cheating on her. That's what's really important, isn't it?
Earlier this week, McCain falsely claimed that Al Qaeda is receiving training in Iran. Multiple times, over the course of multiple days. He didn't correct himself until a traveling companion leaned over and whispered in his ear, presumably telling him that he was getting a rather basic fact wrong (Iran's government is Shiite, Al Qaeda is Sunni, and the Sunni and the Shia aren't known for close cooperation.)
Remember the media's excuse for obsessing over John Edwards' expensive haircut: The cut was deemed newsworthy because it was (supposedly) incongruous with his image as a fighter for the working class and poor. Well, few things are more incongruous with McCain's carefully cultivated image as a military and foreign policy expert than the fact that he apparently doesn't understand basic facts about Iran and Al Qaeda. So you might assume that, by the standard the media applied to John Edwards, John McCain's blunders would receive heavy media coverage, much of it mocking.
And, of course, we know how the media would have reacted if Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or John Kerry had displayed such stunning ignorance about such a basic national security question.
But the media has different standards for John McCain.
Don't take my word for it.
Here's NBC political director Chuck Todd: "[H]ad Clinton or Obama done something like this, this would have been played on a loop, over and over."
And MSNBC host Dan Abrams: "The problem is, when you're running for president and you're running on your foreign policy experience -- if it had happened to Obama or Clinton, I mean, I think it could have devastated -- if it happened to Obama, let's say, with this sort of lead that he's got, I think it might have even devastated his campaign."
And The Hill's A.B. Stoddard: "I think that if Barack Obama had confused Sunni and Shia, Al Qaeda, et cetera, it would have been a disaster. He would have been Mr. Green, wet behind the ears, can't find his way around." She added, "If Hillary Clinton had done so, it would have been, 'Oh, that poor first lady. She's just trying so hard to pretend that she could be president, but it's not going to work.' I think the problem for John McCain is that we assume that he knows his stuff, that he's Mr. National Security, so we say, 'It couldn't be an indication of his ignorance. He must be tired.' "
Stoddard was right: Reporters weren't just politely pretending McCain's mistakes hadn't happened; many of them were actively defending and making excuses for him.
Countless news reports indicated that McCain had simply misspoken -- and that he quickly corrected himself. CNN even aired a misleadingly spliced video that made it appear that McCain corrected himself immediately. In fact, as Media Matters noted, "in between the two statements, McCain was reportedly '[p]ressed to elaborate' on his misstatement and reiterated" his misstatement. Reporters frequently suggested McCain had made the mistake only once; in fact, he made it multiple times over the course of multiple days, indicating a lack of knowledge rather than a simple slip of the tongue.
MSNBC's Joe Scarborough broke out the "he's tired" excuse, sarcastically saying, "John McCain also doesn't know the difference between Sunnis and Shia after he's been awake for 48 hours. Boy, that's a winning platform." Does anybody believe that, as Scarborough claimed, McCain had been "awake for 48 hours"? Anybody at all? Even if he had been, how does Scarborough explain the other times McCain got it wrong?
USA Today's Susan Page offered an extraordinary defense of McCain: "[M]ost Americans can't tell you the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, either."
PolitiFact.com -- a website operated by the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly claiming "to help voters separate fact from falsehood in the 2008 presidential campaign" -- seemed to apologize for having to correct McCain: "We're not trying to pile on to Sen. John McCain over his misstatement on the link between Iran and al-Qaida. Maybe he was confused just for a moment. He did correct himself quickly."
And CNBC's John Harwood asserted: "I think that at the end of the day, John McCain has got sufficient credibility on that issue that people are not going to look at that and say, 'Oh, John McCain's confused' or 'John McCain's too old' or 'John McCain doesn't get it.' ... But he obviously can't do that too many times or he's got a problem."
How many times is "too many"? If reporters are going to give McCain some number of free passes for blunders that would cause them to mock Democratic candidates, is it too much to ask for them to tell us that number in advance? Otherwise it's hard not to assume that reporters will keep increasing the number each time McCain gets something wrong.
John Hagee and Rod Parsley
Given intense media scrutiny of controversial comments made by a religious leader with ties to Barack Obama, many -- including Media Matters -- have wondered when news organizations will devote the same attention to John McCain's ties to Rod Parsley and John Hagee.
In February, shortly before the Ohio primary, John McCain stood with Rod Parsley in Cincinnati, declaring him a "spiritual guide." Parsley returned the compliment with his endorsement of McCain, who he praised as a "strong, true, consistent conservative." Parsley has written that "America was founded, in part, with the intention of seeing this false religion [of Islam] destroyed." As David Corn has explained, "Parsley, who refers to himself as a 'Christocrat,' is no stranger to controversy. In 2007, the grassroots organization he founded, the Center for Moral Clarity, called for prosecuting people who commit adultery. In January, he compared Planned Parenthood to Nazis." He has suggested that the U.S. government was complicit in facilitating black genocide.
McCain won another key endorsement in February: John Hagee, founder and senior pastor of Cornerstone Church in San Antonio.
Hagee has said of Hurricane Katrina, "[W]hen you violate God's will long enough, the judgment of God comes to you. Katrina is an act of God for a society that is becoming Sodom and Gomorrah reborn." Hagee later defended his comment by saying, "I believe that New Orleans had a level of sin that was offensive to God, and they are -- were recipients of the judgment of God for that. ... there was to be a homosexual parade there on the Monday that the Katrina came. And the promise of that parade was that it was going to reach a level of sexuality never demonstrated before in any of the other Gay Pride parades. ... I believe that the Hurricane Katrina was, in fact, the judgment of God against the city of New Orleans."
Hagee has written, "I encourage every person who has biblical beliefs to contact their congressman and their senator on a regular basis and implore them to pass this constitutional amendment recognizing only the marriage between a man and a woman. If we fail to achieve this, the gates of hell will be opened. It will open the door to incest, to polygamy, and every conceivable marriage arrangement demented minds can possibly conceive. If God does not then punish America, He will have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah."
Hagee once announced plans to hold a "slave sale" to raise money. According to the San Antonio Express-News, "Hagee, pastor of the 16,000-member Cornerstone Church, last week had announced a 'slave sale' to raise funds for high school seniors in his church bulletin ... The item was introduced with the sentence 'Slavery in America is returning to Cornerstone' and ended with 'Make plans to come and go home with a slave.' " And Hagee has written "Do you know the difference between a terrorist and a woman with PMS? You can negotiate with a terrorist" and "only a Spirit-filled woman can submit to her husband's lead. It is the natural desire of a woman to lead through feminine manipulation of the man. ...The man has the God-given role to be the loving leader of the home."
According to Hagee, McCain actively sought his endorsement.
But despite McCain's embrace of Hagee and Parsley, their controversial views have not drawn the media scrutiny that has been given to Obama's relationship with his pastor.
Time's Michael Scherer actually claimed the McCain-Hagee connection has gotten extensive media coverage: "With rare exception, the press errs on the side of making a big deal out of anything that can be considered a 'scandal.' McCain's endorsement by Hagee got lots of negative newspaper, blog and network news coverage."
"Lots" of "network news coverage"? The names "Hagee" and "McCain" have been mentioned in the same news report exactly one time on ABC -- in a comment by Democratic strategist Donna Brazile. CBS has covered the matter in two brief reports. NBC has mentioned the endorsement one time, in a report that referred only vaguely to the fact that "some of the televangelist's public remarks have offended Catholics."
"Lots" of "negative newspaper" coverage? The New York Times has mentioned Hagee's endorsement of McCain in two articles. Both times, the Hagee mention was buried at the end of an article about another topic; combined, the two passages totaled only 251 words. Neither made any mention of Hagee's comments about Katrina, or gays, or women. The Washington Post has mentioned Hagee's endorsement of McCain in only two brief blurbs, only one of which noted any controversy surrounding the endorsement -- and, like the Times, that one mentioned only Hagee's comments about Catholics. Post columnist E. J. Dionne did briefly criticize McCain for not distancing himself from Hagee -- but he, too, ignored Hagee's comments about Katrina, gays, and women.
Scherer's claim that "McCain's endorsement by Hagee got lots of negative newspaper, blog and network news coverage" was simply false; the endorsement has been all but ignored by the three networks and the nation's two most important newspapers.
By contrast, a Nexis search for "Obama and Jeremiah Wright" reveals 22 hits ... in The Washington Post alone. And 25 more in The New York Times (22 for "Obama and Jeremiah A. Wright" and three for "Obama and Jeremiah Wright.") And 15 hits in the NBC transcript database -- all since March 14. Fifteen more in the CBS database since March 14. Twenty-two more in the ABC database since March 13. That is "lots of negative coverage." And that is a huge imbalance.
While Scherer falsely claimed that McCain's ties to Hagee have gotten "lots" of attention, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough took another approach: claiming that McCain's embrace of Hagee is utterly unremarkable.
On the March 19 edition of MSNBC's Race for the White House, Rachel Maddow pointed out the "double standard" in the media's coverage of the situations. Scarborough responded by claiming, "This is not a serious argument. ... This is a ridiculous argument when you consider that Barack Obama is talking about his spiritual adviser for 20 years. Hagee didn't baptize McCain's kids. Hagee didn't marry McCain. John McCain's first book wasn't based on a sermon by Hagee."
Scarborough's argument might seem to make sense -- there is no doubt that Obama has closer ties to Jeremiah Wright than John McCain does to John Hagee. But this argument is backwards. Wright is Obama's pastor; their relationship is presumably far more personal than political. Indeed, it may not be political at all. McCain, on the other hand, sought Hagee's support solely for political purposes. His relationship with Hagee is nothing but political. Hagee's political views, therefore, are much more relevant than Jeremiah Wright's, as they are the entire basis for the McCain-Hagee relationship.
Put another way: What tells us more about Mary Matalin's political views? The fact that he has a personal relationship with James Carville, or the fact that she aligned herself politically with George Bush and Dick Cheney?