John McCain told Associated Press on December 22 that "If I could think of a way constitutionally, I would ban negative ads." Independent ads now running against McCain in South Carolina aren't illegal (yet), but many media outlets are acting like they've already been banned.
Ads by the National Smokers Alliance and the National Right to Life Committee (with South Carolina Citizens for Life) claim McCain is not suitably conservative on tobacco taxes or abortion. But the networks are avoiding ads which undermine McCain's claim to be a conservative.
On ABC's World News Tonight February 3, Linda Douglass gave a brief glimpse of the Smokers Alliance TV ad (without audio) but only allowed McCain's point of view. "Today a group which has had ties to the cigarette companies began running an ad attacking him. He jumped at the chance to respond." She added his denunciation was "the kind of blunt talk his campaign thrives on," and "might be a shrewd move." On February 15, an ABC World News Tonight story by Dean Reynolds allowed the sentence: "John McCain sponsored the largest consumer tax increase in history." Otherwise, the ad campaign went ignored by the Big Three.
National Smokers Alliance spokesman Mike Hambrick explained their position Tuesday on CNN's Inside Politics: "The media has basically given the Senator a pass on this question...is what the National Smokers Alliance saying true, Senator? Did you in fact sponsor legislation that would have been the single largest tax increase in the history of this country while telling the American people that you have never voted a tax increase? Which is it?"
The Big Three also ignored the NRLC ads, which is quite hypocritical for NBC. On the March 23, 1999 Today, Lisa Myers publicized a TV ad campaign by the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) charging "Like the rest of the Republicans on the far right, Elizabeth Dole is anti-choice." Myers played that clip and never called NARAL "liberal."
Even though CNN's Inside Politics aired the smokers' and NRLC ads on Tuesday, Judy Woodruff allowed McCain spokesman Terry Haskins to charge without rebuttal that the NRLC was illegally coordinating its activities with the Bush campaign. "They knew these ads were coming...before the ads started." Haskins was referring to a February 14 Time story quoting Bush aides on the ads.
But the NRLC began its South Carolina ads in mid-January, and McCain's staff knew it. On January 11, McCain's Web site charged that "secret soft money" was funding the ads. The NRLC replied that the ads were paid with hard money, and the donor list has been made public. Reckless negative charges go unchecked - if they're made by a campaign the media favor. - Tim Graham