McCain's Shocking Media Mess

In an unforeseen development, political reporters came down from their sugar high from all the sweet talk on John McCain's presidential campaign bus, the so-called "Straight Talk Express."

It began with a Boston Globe story on January 5. McCain, who still has a day job as the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, had written a to the Federal Communications Commission on the pending sale of a Pittsburgh public television station involving entrepreneur Lowell Paxson.

The Globe noted that Paxson and his law firm have given $20,000 to McCain's campaign, and the day before he sent one letter to the FCC, he used Paxson's jet for a trip from New York to Florida. The day after, he took the company jet from Florida to Washington. Soon, the story appeared in The New York Times and the Washington Post and attracted an entire "Nightline" on ABC. Ted Koppel began: "Now his political opponents are asking about the appearance of special treatment for a big donor. Tonight, so are we. There is, if not, an impropriety, the appearance of an impropriety."

In the middle of the interview, Koppel brought up McCain's role as one of the "Keating Five," helping the chairman of a fraudulent savings and loan: "What then is so different about that and what happened this time? I mean, here, too, you have a man who, together with his associates, has made significant contributions to your campaign, who, as you and I were just discussing a few minutes ago, was prepared to do it again this weekend, who has given you access to his private jet during this campaign, and where once again there is, if not an impropriety, the appearance of an impropriety."

Was all this fair to McCain? Well, it certainly isn't fair to Paxson, who unlike Keating, hasn't ripped off the taxpayers. By helping unload a duplicative PBS tax drain in Pittsburgh, he ought to get some credit. He's taken an "educational" outlet for left-wing propaganda like "Tongues Untied" and given Pittsburghers "Touched by An Angel."

At the liberal Web site, former U.S. News reporter Tim Noah called the charge a "bum rap" and suggested "the real reason the Times gave the story big play is that it feels self- conscious about the favorable coverage McCain's candidacy has been getting from the media in general." Noah is correct. No one can reasonably disagree that McCain has been blown a surfeit of soft kisses from the media in the last three months. But should the media just arbitrarily turn on a formerly favored candidate when they begin hearing those echoes from inside the tank?

What about Koppel? Is he really so concerned about all stories of donors dangling cash for action? No. Take Mike Espy, Clinton's first Agriculture Secretary, who accepted football tickets and other goodies from companies he was regulating, like Tyson Foods. On December 3, 1998, after he was acquitted of any crimes by a D.C. jury, Koppel devoted a show to trumpeting his supposed innocence: "It was, on a similar occasion after a former secretary of labor, Ray Donovan, was found not guilty of criminal charges that he raised the rhetorical question which must be on Mike Espy's mind these days. 'What office do I go to,' said Donovan, 'to get my reputation back?' Mike Espy, who was appointed by Bill Clinton, may at least expect to get some job back. I'll ask him about that in a few minutes when he joins us." Koppel didn't have any tough questions about ethical "appearances" for Espy that night.

What McCain did for Paxson doesn't make him corrupt. But he deserves the full punishing weight of these accusations just the same. McCain claimed that he has a "special obligation" to conduct his campaign in a way that avoids "exacerbating public cynicism," but exacerbating cynicism is his ticket to the top. He has spent the last several years blanketing the country with the sentence-first, verdict-afterwards notion that all of Washington is corrupt by having a single meeting with or sending a single letter to a bureaucrat on behalf of anyone who's contributed to a candidate. In McCain's incorruptible utopia, only profit-hating guardians of the "public interest" should bother regulators, and businessmen (like broadcasters) whose enterprises sometimes rise or fall on government decisions should just wait two years (like Paxson) or longer without any fuss.

McCain has sought his party's nomination by catering to liberal "campaign reform" crowd who seeks to shred any GOP financial advantages and strangle any troublesome conservative groups who would dare to air ads mentioning politicians at election time. McCain's ploy has now boomeranged and left him looking like just another two-faced pol. All his "straight talk" about how he's corrupt, too, can't obscure the reality of his hypocrisy.