Media Coverage of Obama and McCain: "Nuts" or a "Disgrace"?
Journalism, by nature, is not difficult. It really isn't. Most of the key attributes for solid reporting and editing come naturally to most people; fairness, hard work, and -- most important -- common sense.
News judgment, for instance, consists mostly of editors and producers using common sense to determine, based on the limited resources at hand, which breaking events and stories should be covered, and which ones can be set aside as less important.
During the slow summer months of a presidential campaign, that judgment and that common sense is usually even easier to put into practice because, traditionally, so little happens on the campaign trail with the candidates that what ought to be covered becomes self-evident.
Yet the Beltway press corps has become so borderline dysfunctional that even the simplest tasks, such as selecting which stories to cover -- such as using common sense -- now escape most of the major players at the mainstream news organizations.
Two events in recent days reaffirmed that sad conclusion, when entire news organizations opted to throw all sorts of time and attention at what was essentially a pointless campaign-related sideshow, while simultaneously displaying blanket indifference to what should have been the campaign story of the week, if not the month or possibly the entire summer.
Last week, after being hyped by Matt Drudge and Fox News, the Beltway press unanimously decided that Rev. Jesse Jackson's whispered comments, picked up on a live television set mic, in which he expressed anger with Sen. Barack Obama and used some crude language to convey his sentiments (i.e. he wanted to cut off Obama's "nuts"), represented a hugely important event. It was the most-covered campaign story of the week.
By contrast, McCain said at a campaign appearance in Denver on July 7 that the Social Security system as structured in America, in which younger people pay taxes to support the benefits of retirees, is an "absolute disgrace" -- but his proclamation was mostly passed over as being irrelevant. The disconnect between the coverage was astounding.
As of Sunday morning, only 17 major metropolitan newspapers in America had reported on McCain's "disgraceful" remark, in a total of 20 articles and columns, according to search of Nexis.
By contrast, more than 50 major U.S. dailies published a total of 126 articles and columns about the Jackson story. Several influential newspapers went back to the story ad nauseam. Combined, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times and Los Angeles Times published 39 different articles and columns that referenced the Jackson-Obama controversy.
By contrast, the combined number of stories and columns those three newspapers published that made reference to the McCain "disgrace" controversy? One.
On television, the disparity was even more striking. Again, as of Sunday morning there had been nearly 900 mentions of "Jesse Jackson" over the previous five days on the cable and networks news channels, according to a search of TVeyes.com.
On those same news outlets there had been less than 24 references to McCain's "disgrace" comment. And not a single network newscast reported on the Social Security story. For reporters and pundits, "nuts" reigned over the "disgrace." Even days after the Jackson story faded, I was still left scratching my head trying to figure out exactly what significance, if any, the episode represented. Yes, it was embarrassing for Jackson. Yes, Jackson is famous. Yes, it's mildly amusing to hear what famous people like Jackson really think when they assume they cannot be overheard. But that doesn't explain why Jackson grabbed approximately 900 television mentions last week, or why reporters spent an inordinate amount of time "analyzing" the repercussions from the "nuts" swipe.
I could see how it would've been a big deal if the person behind the hot mic had been a prominent Clinton supporter, for instance, and how the same type of crude language might have reflected a larger, possibly still-lingering rift between the two Democratic camps. Thus, the comments coming from that person would have had real political meaning.
But Jackson is a civil rights leader who often speaks for African-Americans -- who, according to the polls, are among Obama's most stalwart, unwavering supporters. I just didn't understand how Jackson's comments could be interpreted as representing a larger, widespread problem for the Obama campaign (i.e., actual news). Jackson, obviously speaking only for himself, said something nasty under his breath about the Democratic candidate whom he supports. That's blockbuster news that has to be mentioned on TV 900 times in the span of just a few days?
It seems the only reasons the Jackson story got so much attention was that it was easy to cover (i.e., it required no real reporting), it included a juicy off-color quote, it did not involve any sort of public policy issue, and Matt Drudge said it was important.
Note that the exact opposite requirements were needed to address the McCain story: Some actual reporting had to be undertaken, the topic at hand was Social Security, no blue language was involved, and the Drudge Report completely ignored the "disgrace" episode.
It's hard to downplay just how shocking McCain's Social Security comments were. In fact, they were likely unprecedented for a modern American presidential campaign. It wasn't just the stock GOP misinformation McCain spread in Denver about how Social Security was going bankrupt soon. (It's not.) It was the proclamation by McCain that our pay-as-you-go Social Security itself was an "absolute disgrace." Period.
As Josh Marshall put it at Talking Points Memo: "In other words, there's no question that John McCain thinks that the problem with Social Security is the way it was designed at the very beginning, the way it was always designed to work."
Does McCain think Medicare is a "disgrace" too? Our postal system, national parks, highways? What other landmark government-funded initiatives does McCain dismiss as a "disgrace"?
The campaign spin of his July 7 remarks was that McCain was referring to the fact that it's a "disgrace" that Congress has not been able to solve future funding issues for Social Security. That represented an interesting and plausible take. But it matched virtually none of what McCain said in Denver. Or what he said on CNN that week: "[Younger people] pay their taxes and right now their taxes are going to pay the retirement of present-day retirees. That's why it's broken, that's why we can fix it."
Bloggers noted it over and over last week: John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, thinks that Social Security, widely regarded as the most effective government-run program in the history of the United States, is a "disgrace."
What was so revealing was that not a single member of the campaign press caravan that heard McCain's shocking swipe at Social Security immediately thought it was newsworthy.
Here's just a partial list of print news outlets that had reporters covering McCain's Denver event but that did not mention the "disgrace" comment -- that did not consider it to be newsworthy in real time:
- The Washington Times
- Los Angeles Times
- The Baltimore Sun
- The Miami Herald
- St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- New York Post
- Associated Press
Honestly, what's the point of having an army of reporters follow McCain around the country if they cannot detect news when it happens, or are too timid to relay it when it does?
The Washington Post was also among the newspapers that sent a reporter to cover McCain's Denver event and then ignored the "disgrace" story.
But how's this for embarrassing? The day after McCain's "disgrace" comment, the Post
published a lengthy, A1 piece detailing the Social Security positions of Obama and McCain, but the newspaper did not include McCain's shocking remarks. The Post did include a snippet of the Republican's remarks from Denver the day before, but in an article about the candidates' view of Social Security, not the fact that McCain thinks the whole system is a "disgrace."
Days later, when the Post finally caught up with the "disgrace" comment, the piece included a second round of "disgrace" spin from McCain himself, who -- asked at last to edify his remark -- claimed he was referring to the fact that young people "are paying so much that they are paying into a system that they won't receive benefits from on its present track that [it's] on, that's the point." McCain added that the Social Security trustees "have clearly stated it's going to go bankrupt."
That's what he meant by "disgrace."
The Post however, failed to inform readers that McCain's claim that Social Security is "going to go bankrupt" and that young people won't receive any Social Security benefits is, without question, false.
So to recap: At the Post, the paper failed to catch the "disgrace" comment when it was first made. The paper then published an entire piece about Social Security as a campaign issue and never included the "disgrace" comment. And when the Post belatedly addressed the "disgrace" remark, it allowed McCain to air unfettered lies about Social Security.
That was also my reaction to reading the July 11 New York Times dispatch that quite belatedly addressed the McCain controversy. The Times story was startling because it presented McCain's astounding Social Security remark right alongside a completely benign comment Obama made last week about American children needing to learn a second language. The Times presented the two quotes as being equal, as being examples of the kind of "controversies" that can arise when candidates veer off scripted remarks.
But the only reason the Obama remarks became a so-called "controversy" was when right-wing groups purposely misinterpreted the remarks to mean Obama was demanding that Americans be forced to learn Spanish.
By contrast, the McCain remarks were controversial because liberals online repeated and highlighted precisely what the candidate had said about Social Security.
Another "wow" moment came when reading the July 12-13 Wall Street Journal article that reviewed McCain's week (from hell) on the campaign trail. And specifically, the piece detailed the missteps that occurred during Q&A sessions with voters. Yet the Journal made no mention of the fact that McCain told a voter that America's Social Security system was an "absolute disgrace."
That was not news, according to Rupert Murdoch's newspaper, where common sense is clearly in short supply.
When some news organizations, shamed into action by the blogs, finally did get around to addressing the news story they completely (and willfully?) missed, reporters were careful to tiptoe around McCain's unambiguous comment and generally act confused about what the candidate meant.
Online at USA Today, the newspaper's blog posted an item under the headline, "Did McCain call Social Security a disgrace?" suggesting there was a deep mystery involved. The post basically provided a link to McCain's televised remarks and left the rest to the readers: "Judge for yourself -- did he misspeak?" Reporters at USA Today, apparently, were not able to make that call themselves.
Blogging at ABC News, Jake Tapper also opted for the gee-I'm-stumped headline approach: "What About Social Security Was McCain Calling a 'Disgrace?' " Tapper replayed the McCain comments and included a round-up of reactions from liberal bloggers who jumped on the story and wondered why the candidate's remark wasn't being replayed in a cable television loop. Tapper himself made no attempt to analyze or interpret the McCain comments, to put them in context, or to suggest they were newsworthy or controversial; he simply contacted the campaign and re-printed its weak spin.
Over at Time.com, Justin Fox reviewed McCain's whopper and announced, "This was more a case of McCain misspeaking or misunderstanding than having a secret plan to dismantle Social Security as we know it."
The Los Angeles Times claimed that McCain "seemed to call Social Security a 'disgrace' " [emphasis added].
Dan Balz, taking part in a washingtonpost.com online chat session with readers, offered up his own cleansing interpretation: "I would suspect that the point [McCain] was trying to make in calling the system a disgrace is the fact that with fewer workers paying the cost of Social Security for more and more retirees, the system is out of balance."
McCain's Social Security words were unambiguous; he was absolutely clear. But the press, after belatedly acknowledging them, quickly and charitably concocted an escape hatch for the candidate -- he misspoke! Or, this is what he probably meant to say.
Frankly, that's just nuts.