Journalists love the crack "When your mother says she loves you, check it out." But reporters don't really want to place withering scrutiny on their mothers, and they're not applying it to their good buddy John McCain.
In their crabby looks back at George W. Bush's win in South Carolina, the press saw only one factually-challenged, hyper-negative candidate. Newsweek declared Bush "had been forced to run to the far right and deep in mud." Time said Bush's "slashing tactics" were "ferocious even by South Carolina's down-and-dirty standards."
But McCain's campaign has launched a plethora of factually sloppy attacks on his opponents this year, and the press has not only failed to call him on them, they've actually helped him right along. Exhibit A is the town meeting testimony of Donna Duren on February 10. Duren claimed her teenage son was close to tears after getting a phone call informing him that McCain was a "liar, cheat, and a fraud." McCain then turned around and charged that Bush had to stop these phone calls immediately, as if he'd ordered them. Did McCain have any evidence? No, but never mind. NBC said "this Republican race is getting uglier than anyone imagined." CBS said "it's reportedly a pro-Bush line of attack."
This wallowing in an unsubstantiated attack provided a rich moment for every American who remembers the media's withering disdain for alternative media like talk radio and the Internet, both of which supposedly cannot be relied on for factual accuracy.
Well, there is inaccuracy on the Internet that the media ignore - McCain's own Web site. One lonely media source that has tracked McCain's claims for accuracy is the newspaper Investor's Business Daily. On January 10, reporter Brian Mitchell noted that McCain's Web site claimed he "supported legislation" to repeal the ban on women flying combat missions, "based on recommendations" of a 1992 president's commission on women in the military. But Mitchell found McCain and the commission voted against repeal of the ban, and the ban was repealed before the commission even got to work.
On February 17, the paper's Daniel J. Murphy noted that McCain's Web site claimed "John McCain has always consistently opposed public funding of campaigns and has never proposed such a plan." But McCain had voted for public financing five times (and against it 11 times). Murphy noted as his story was published, "the Web site assertions had not been clarified or deleted.."
Then there's McCain's war on the National Right to Life Committee. When the NRLC announced it would run radio ads against McCain in South Carolina, the McCain Web site put up a press release with the headline "Secret Soft Money Funds Another Attack Against Reformer McCain." McCain surrogate Barbara Leonard complained that the NRLC can "ride into town" with "secret campaign cash," when they ought to "at least disclose the names of their secret donors."
NRLC PAC director Carol Long Tobias fought back, saying that their ads were paid for entirely with "hard money," and "This should be absolutely obvious to McCain or anybody else who claims to be an expert on federal election law." The ads contained the right disclaimers, and
"The names of all donors of over $200 to either PAC are reported on a regular schedule to the FEC, and are available for inspection in the FEC database."
What a story! McCain, the campaign finance "reformer," either doesn't understand campaign finance law, his supposed specialty, or he was deliberately twisting the truth. But where were the media?
That wasn't the only sloppy attack on NRLC, by the way. The Concord Monitor reported at the same time that McCain New England political director Mike Dennehy claimed, "The right to life organization is deathly afraid of McCain becoming president, because they know he will enact campaign finance reform and they will lose their six-figure salaries." Again, Tobias had to correct the record. "National Right to Life has an unpaid president, and no staff member has ever drawn a six-figure salary - although McCain himself has a six-figure salary of $141,300." Ouch.
On CNN's "Inside Politics" February 15, McCain spokesman (and South Carolina state Representative) Terry Haskins charged the NRLC and the Bush campaign were lawbreakers, illegally coordinating their attacks on McCain, and claimed Bush aides "knew these ads were coming...before the ads started." Haskins referred to a February 14 Time article quoting Bush aides talking about the ads. But the NRLC began its South Carolina ads in January, and McCain's staff knew it, since their Web site made the sloppy attacks then about "secret soft money."
Clearly, our alleged accuracy-loving press corps aren't monitoring campaigns they favor. If they cared about reporting all accuracy and negativity in politics, McCain's so-called "Straight Talk Express" would be redubbed the Trash Talk Express.