"Media Matters"; by Jamison Foser


If the media were to apply the same standards to John McCain that they applied to John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, they would report (endlessly) that John McCain, a very rich man, is embracing tax cuts that even John McCain has said unfairly benefit the very rich. And they would be demanding that he release his tax returns so voters could see how much money John McCain would personally save under McCain's tax plan.

Media ignore McCain's finances after obsessing over Dems'

If you've been watching MSNBC lately, you've probably heard that Hillary Clinton hasn't made her tax returns public.

Here's Andrea Mitchell: "I mean, where are the tax returns?" And Dan Abrams: "Not releasing tax returns does beg the question, 'Is there something to hide?' " Chris Matthews: "Will you commit ... to release her tax returns before the election in Pennsylvania which is so pivotal for you? ... So we'll get the results before we vote." And Tucker Carlson: "I'm still baffled as to why Senator Clinton hasn't released her tax returns."

Carlson, the soon-to-be-former host of the eponymous (and, as of tomorrow morning, defunct) show Tucker, has not only been baffled, he has been positively obsessed:

  • CARLSON, MARCH 6: "Senator Clinton claims she's too busy to release her tax returns. ... The reality is she wants to keep this information hidden from the voters of Wyoming, Mississippi and Pennsylvania. And they ought to wonder why."
  • CARLSON, FEBRUARY 25: "Frank Rich makes the point, if we are that biased against Hillary Clinton, we'd be asking to see her tax returns."
  • CARLSON, FEBRUARY 22: "It has never made sense to me why Mrs. Clinton doesn't release her tax returns."
  • CARLSON, FEBRUARY 13: "I want to see her tax returns. I want specific tax returns. ... I want to see specific tax returns. ... And we always see them. Why can't we see her[s]? ... I want to see her tax return. ... Is there a reason she's not -- we're not seeing it? ... [I]n order to know where the money is coming from, I think it's fair to see her tax return. That's why Obama has released his. That's why every candidate has and she hasn't."

Tucker's assertion that "every candidate" other than Clinton has released his tax returns isn't quite right. John McCain hasn't released his tax returns, either.

Not that you would know that from watching MSNBC. According to Nexis, there hasn't been a single mention on MSNBC this year of the fact that McCain hasn't released his tax returns. No indication that McCain might even pay taxes, much less that he hasn't released his returns.

Even when Republican strategists appear as guests on MSNBC, they get asked about the fact that Clinton hasn't released her returns -- but not about the fact that McCain hasn't, either.

On March 1, Tim Russert asked Mary Matalin about Clinton: "Mary Matalin, I asked Hillary Clinton about her $5 million loan to her campaign. And I said because of that, would she release her tax returns? She and her husband have a joint return. He's had a lot of overseas dealings. And isn't it fair for voters to know exactly where he got his money from? So, I mean, she said, well, we're going to put them out if I'm the nominee, maybe before. But clearly doesn't want to release her tax return." Matalin -- quite predictably -- responded by saying that Clinton "will not be able to get away with this" and that "it is emblematic of her candidacy and what people don't like about her and what they are done with. They want transparency."

Now, keep in mind: Mary Matalin is a Republican strategist, and Tim Russert just invited her to attack Hillary Clinton. That's bad enough; given Tim Russert's well-cultivated reputation for tough questioning, you might have expected him to challenge Matalin's criticism of Democrats rather than encouraging them.

But Russert had a chance to redeem himself, and failed. Given that Republican strategist Mary Matalin had just said that Clinton's failure to release her tax returns conflicts with the public's desire for "transparency," Tim Russert could have followed up by asking her why that isn't also true of de facto Republican presidential nominee John McCain. Russert could have done that -- it would have been the most obvious thing in the world to do -- but he didn't. Mary Matalin was spared the difficulty of having to explain why Hillary Clinton's lack of disclosure of her tax returns reflects badly on her, but the same is not true of John McCain. And MSNBC viewers were kept blissfully unaware that McCain hasn't released his returns.

MSNBC has by no means been unique in keeping secret the fact that John McCain hasn't released his tax returns. Media Matters has repeatedly documented media raising Clinton's lack of disclosure without mentioning McCain's -- see here, here, here, and here for examples. During a March 5 Washingtonpost.com online discussion, Washington Post congressional reporter Jonathan Weisman wrote, "I think McCain has" released his tax returns. Weisman was wrong. Not only hasn't McCain released his taxes, he hasn't even promised to do so in the future, as Clinton has. But it's hard to blame Weisman for not knowing this, given that the rest of the news media were all but ignoring the subject.

What makes the media's silence about John McCain's tax returns all the more glaring is that those returns are directly relevant to one of McCain's central campaign messages. We'll come back to that in a moment.

Remember how reporters justified their obsession with John Edwards' expensive haircut and house last year, back when they were reminding us of these things at every opportunity -- and, all too often, inventing opportunities to do so? Edwards' haircut was important, reporters gravely told us, because it demonstrated hypocrisy, given the presidential candidate's focus on things like expanding access to health care and fighting poverty. This was a transparently silly argument -- Edwards would, indeed, have been a hypocrite if he had been saying people should not be rich while being rich himself. But that wasn't what he was saying; he wasn't saying people shouldn't be rich, he was saying people shouldn't be poor.

Nevertheless, journalists insisted over and over again that Edwards was guilty of hypocrisy for taking a policy position that was (allegedly, but not really) inconsistent with his personal wealth.

In doing so, they set a clear (if inanely applied, in Edwards' case) standard: Candidates' finances are relevant in assessing their policy proposals.

Ok, then -- back to John McCain.

In 2001, John McCain voted against President Bush's tax cuts, noting that they were skewed toward the wealthy. In a Senate floor statement, McCain explained that he could not "in good conscience support a tax cut in which so many of the benefits go to the most fortunate among us, at the expense of middle class Americans who most need tax relief."

But now, John McCain supports making the Bush tax cuts permanent rather than allowing them to expire, as they are scheduled to do under current law. Now, John McCain runs around saying things like, "The Democrats have already ... told us they will increase our taxes."

Who do you think McCain means when he says "our"?

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both made clear that they would roll back the Bush tax cuts only for the super-wealthy; Obama has said only "the top 1 percent" would be affected, and Clinton has said she would roll back the tax cuts only for "people making more than $250,000 a year."

So, for the overwhelming majority of Americans -- those making less than about $250,000 per year -- Clinton and Obama would not roll back the Bush tax cuts.

Indeed, McCain himself has previously acknowledged that the Bush tax cuts unfairly benefited the wealthy. So, when he says the Democrats would "increase our taxes," maybe that's who he is referring to. Indeed, Money magazine estimates John McCain's net worth at $40 million.

If the media were to apply the same standards to John McCain that they applied to John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, they would report (endlessly) that John McCain, a very rich man, is embracing tax cuts that even John McCain has said unfairly benefit the very rich. And they would be demanding that he release his tax returns so voters could see how much money John McCain would personally save under McCain's tax plan.

Where once we saw articles comparing the cost of John Edwards' haircut with those available at small-town barbershops, we would see news reports comparing the amount the typical family saved under the Bush tax cuts with John McCain's savings.

John McCain has acknowledged that the Bush tax cuts he now wants to extend unfairly line the pockets of superrich people like ... John McCain. Under the rules the news media applied to John Edwards, that kind of self-enriching flip-flop would be big news, and would be repeated over and over again.

But the news media -- McCain's "base" -- don't treat him the way they treat other (particularly Democratic) candidates. And so you probably haven't heard or read a word -- not a single word -- about John McCain's wealth during a news report about his tax policies. Indeed, you probably haven't heard or read a word about his wealth during any news report.

Certainly not during the recent wave of reporters gushing over McCain after he hosted them for a March 2 barbeque at his Arizona "cabin."

The Arizona Republic described it as a "rustic cabin"; National Public Radio described it as a "weekend cabin"; The New York Times called it McCain's "cabin near Sedona, Ariz."; the Associated Press called it a "cabin"; and The Washington Post -- which devoted two articles to the barbeque -- agreed that it is a "rustic cabin."

If a presidential candidate cooking outdoors at his "rustic cabin" conjures images of Abraham Lincoln and a modest log cabin, that is no doubt fine with McCain.

But McCain's "cabin" isn't quite like what you might imagine a "rustic cabin" to be. The property is worth more than a million dollars, and has both a guest house and a third house next door for additional "living and entertainment space."*

Now, there's nothing wrong with the fact that John McCain's cabin is so luxurious that it has a guest house and another house for "living and entertainment."* Good for John McCain. But given the media mockery of John Edwards and John Kerry for their expensive homes, it's a little odd to see McCain's lavish compound* described so modestly as a "rustic cabin." Edwards and Kerry were lambasted as out-of-touch elites in part because of their houses; McCain's is described in the most favorable possible terms.

Kerry, of course, wasn't just mocked for living in a large house; journalists went out of their way to point out that his wife owns the house. There was Tucker Carlson on CNN saying "Kerry wants to mortgage his wife's house in Boston for a campaign loan." And The New York Times emphasized that Kerry was scheduled "to fly to his wife's house in western Pennsylvania." And Fox's Carl Cameron: "Kerry mortgaged the Beacon Hill mansion his wife purchased for them 10 years ago and loaned his campaign $6 million."

Well, guess who owns John McCain's "rustic cabin"*? Cindy McCain, the wealthy and politically connected Arizona beer heiress McCain married shortly after leaving his first wife, and just in time to move to Arizona to run for Congress.

If the media applied to John McCain the standards they have applied to Democratic presidential candidates over the years, they would report constantly on his personal financial interest in the tax plan he now advocates and once denounced as skewed toward the wealthy. They would clamor for the release of his tax returns. They would mock him for living in an estate with a pool and a guest house -- and then mock him some more for having married into money.

But, as has long been clear, the media do not cover John McCain the way they have covered countless Democratic presidential candidates. And so they don't say a word about his personal wealth. They remain silent about his tax returns. And they refer to his "rustic cabin."

Rumors of the "end of the affair" between McCain and the press have been greatly exaggerated. As Joe Scarborough, the conservative host of MSNBC's Morning Joe, has said of the national press corps, "I think every last one of them would move to Massachusetts and marry John McCain if they could."


In the original version of this column, I erroneously asserted that McCain's "rustic cabin" was featured in Architectural Digest and has a pool. Those facts apply instead to one of McCain's other homes, near Phoenix. Cindy McCain also owns two residential properties near the ocean in the San Diego area. I regret the error.

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