“Media Matters”; by Jamison Foser

Planning a presidential campaign around confidence that the news media will get your message out for you might ordinarily be considered a risky gambit. But the media wasted no time in establishing that McCain's faith will be rewarded. Just look at the past week.

The media render the RNC obsolete

When Bob Dole wrapped up the Republican nomination in 1996, he bumped up against the limits on campaign spending by which candidates who take public financing agree to abide. Dole's situation was the subject of significant media attention, meaning that even if he was inclined to simply ignore the limits and hope to escape significant legal penalties, it would have been politically difficult to do so -- he would have been plagued by news reports that he was breaking the law. So Dole turned to the Republican National Committee to carry him to the Republican convention, when he received his general election funding.

Dole's predicament has a contemporary analogue -- to an extent. Like Dole, John McCain has wrapped up the GOP presidential nomination well in advance of the party's convention. Like Dole, McCain has reached the primary spending caps and may be breaking the law with each additional dollar he spends. (McCain's campaign asserts that he is not breaking the law because he opted out of the public finance system after first opting in. Federal Election Commission chairman David Mason disagrees.)

But that's where the similarities end. Things are a little easier if your name is John McCain -- after all, who needs the RNC when you have MSNBC?

As Media Matters has repeatedly documented, the media have largely given McCain a pass on his possible law-breaking -- and even continue to tout him as a paragon of campaign finance virtue. Needless to say, when McCain travels to Selma for a photo-op, the media don't point out that he is likely breaking campaign finance law by doing so. McCain is thus free to continue campaigning full steam ahead in a way Dole was not.

But even if McCain were to slow his spending, he would hardly need the RNC to carry him -- not when the media are carrying his water.

Last week, Politico reported that John McCain has an “unorthodox strategy” to capture the presidency -- he “will rely on free media to an unprecedented degree to get out his message.”

Interesting word, “rely” -- the American Heritage Dictionary defines it not only as “to be dependent for support, help, or supply,” but also as “to place or have faith or confidence.”

Planning a presidential campaign around confidence that the news media will get your message out for you might ordinarily be considered a risky gambit. But the media wasted no time in establishing that McCain's faith will be rewarded. Just look at the past week.

Last Friday, McCain released his tax filings -- sort of. Not that there was any great media pressure on him to do so; while hounding Hillary Clinton to release her tax filings, the media ignored the fact that McCain had not released his -- some even falsely claimed that he had already done so. Even after Clinton released hers, the media showed no interest in whether McCain would do likewise. So when McCain finally released an extremely limited portion of his filings -- he released only those from the past two years, and only his, not his wife, Cindy's -- it came as no surprise that the media neither dug in with the appetite they brought to Clinton's taxes nor demanded more.

The media even bought the McCain campaign's bogus claim that John Kerry's 2004 campaign provided a precedent for McCain to keep Cindy's taxes secret. While the Kerry campaign did not release Teresa Heinz Kerry's complete tax filings, it did release summary pages that showed, for example, her total income, which allowed The New York Times to analyze how much she benefited from the Bush tax cuts. John McCain once said those tax cuts unfairly benefit the wealthy; he and his wife are spectacularly wealthy, and McCain now supports those tax cuts -- but we have no way of knowing how much money they save John and Cindy McCain. And the media don't care.

Remember: Cindy McCain once was investment partners with Charles Keating, around the time McCain was breaking ethics rules by taking free flights on Keating's jet and being reprimanded by the Senate Ethics Committee after urging regulators to go easy on Keating's savings and loan. Yet the news media are content to assume that McCain is now clean as a whistle; no need to scrutinize his finances the way they scrutinize Clinton's and Barack Obama's. (On MSNBC in February, Time magazine's Rick Stengel asserted that “McCain is so pure on this issue, ever since the Keating Five when he saw the light. ... McCain has toed the line about lobbyists, about campaign fundraising.” How would Stengel know, if he and his fellow journalists refuse to actually examine McCain's conduct rather than simply asserting his purity?)

On Tuesday, The New York Times ran what should have served as a reminder to other media outlets that stipulating to McCain's purity is not journalism, it is cheerleading. The Times revealed that McCain helped Donald Diamond, one of his biggest fundraisers, purchase a stretch of California coastal land from the Pentagon -- a purchase that netted Diamond a $20 million profit. Diamond explained: “I think that is what Congress people are supposed to do for constituents. ... When you have a big, significant businessman like myself, why wouldn't you want to help move things along? What else would they do? They waste so much time with legislation.”

Rather than jumping on the Times report, as they have with stories about Clinton and Obama donors, the rest of the media politely averted their eyes. A Nexis search finds only a handful of news reports about McCain and Diamond since the Times story ran: a UPI article, an article in The Monterey County Herald, and a few blog posts.

Instead of asking questions about McCain's limited release of his tax filings or his relationship with Diamond, many in the media have been busy running his positive branding campaign for him.

At The Washington Post, purportedly liberal columnist Richard Cohen declares McCain's dishonesty “understandable” and insists he is “an honorable man” anyway. (Cohen isn't so kind to Hillary Clinton; her alleged dishonesty renders her “incapable of doing an essential part of the job” of president, according to Cohen.)

Cohen's colleague David Broder, meanwhile, says of McCain, “In an age of deep cynicism about politicians of both parties, McCain is the rare exception who is not assumed to be willing to sacrifice personal credibility to prevail in any contest.” Broder's use of the passive voice allowed him to avoid saying who assumes this of McCain, but it's pretty clear that the answer is “David Broder.” The question then becomes why David Broder would assume this, as Bob Borosage and Steve Benen and Kevin Drum and Bob Somerby have explained. Just this morning, a Washington Post editorial devoted 50 words to asserting that McCain's tax and spending plans are less clear and less fiscally responsible than Clinton's and Obama's -- and 592 words to criticizing the Democrats' plans.

Television news wasn't any better. On MSNBC, David Gregory told viewers that “the Republicans, I think, were smart to nominate John McCain because he's not your average Republican. And he's got a pretty strong brand identity as being a maverick and being anti-politics and anti-Washington. He's got a lot of cards to play here.” (Gregory didn't mention that McCain got that “brand identity” largely because reporters keep calling him a maverick and asserting that he is “anti-politics and anti-Washington” while ignoring stories about him doing favors for donors. Must have slipped his mind.) And on CNN, Wolf Blitzer and Gloria Borger engaged in what one can only assume was a contest to see who could cram the most favorable descriptions of McCain into a single sentence.

But nowhere was the media's assistance of McCain (intentional or otherwise) more apparent than during MSNBC's coverage of two new right-wing advertisements attacking Barack Obama.

This week, the North Carolina Republican Party unveiled an ad attacking Obama. Despite the fact that the ad is not yet running on television, television news outlets quickly began giving the state party free national airtime by playing the ad over and over. Which, of course, is precisely what the North Carolina Republican Party wanted -- you don't release an ad that is not yet running if you don't want television news to play it over and over again.

That isn't particularly unusual -- campaigns, party committees, and other organizations frequently release ads that will see little or no actual airtime in hopes that television news programs will play them for free. And the news media often play along (though they don't do so consistently: How often have you seen news reports play recent ads critical of McCain?)

The twist in coverage of the North Carolina GOP ad is that while running the ad over and over again, media figures hyped McCain's purported efforts to stop the ad. McCain thus got the benefit of television news programs repeatedly playing an ad critical of his potential opponent, while also benefiting from those same news programs portraying him as a good and noble person opposed to ugly campaign tactics like those on display in the ad.

On NBC's Nightly News, for example, Andrea Mitchell played a portion of the ad, then announced, “John McCain immediately demanded that the North Carolina Republicans kill the ad.” Earlier in the day, Mitchell said on MSNBC that McCain was “obviously taking a very strong stand” against the ad.

But McCain's “very strong stand” turns out to have been something else entirely. McCain said in a letter released to the media and purportedly sent to the state party that he is “committed to running a respectful campaign based upon an honest debate. ... The television advertisement you are planning to air degrades our civics and distracts us from the very real differences we have with the Democrats. ... [W]e need not engage in political tactics that only seek to divide the American people. ... [I]t is imperative that you withdraw this offensive advertisement.”

And ... that's it. John McCain's “very strong stand” against the ad consisted of a sternly worded letter.

McCain later told a campaign audience that “all I can do is publicly state that that is not in keeping with the tradition of the party of Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan, and I will bring every pressure to bear that I can to stop it.”

But the simple fact is that John McCain could stop the North Carolina Republican Party from running the ad in a heartbeat, if he really wanted to. As the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, he holds enormous leverage over pretty much every Republican on the planet. There are countless ways he could exercise that leverage to prevent the ad from running. He could tell the state party that if it runs the ad, he will not campaign for North Carolina Republicans. He could tell the party that if it runs the ad, he will endorse Democrats running for office in North Carolina. He could tell them that if they run the ad, he will do everything he can to reduce the number of delegates North Carolina has at future Republican conventions.

McCain could do any of those things or countless others. And he would, if he truly believed it is “imperative” that the ad not run. He would, if he was telling the truth when he said he would “bring every pressure to bear that I can to stop it.”

On Thursday, MSNBC's Norah O'Donnell interviewed RNC chairman Mike Duncan, who also claims to want the North Carolina GOP to drop the ad. O'Donnell let Duncan repeatedly claim he and McCain oppose the ad without asking Duncan a single question about whether either the RNC or McCain would actually do anything about it.

On Friday's Today show, McCain insisted, “I've done everything that I can to repudiate and to see that this kind of campaigning does not continue.” On Good Morning America on Friday, McCain insisted, “I'll do everything in my power to make sure not only they stop it but that kind of leadership is rejected.” On neither program was McCain asked if he would actually do anything to force the state party to drop the ad, other than complain about it. He wasn't asked if he has conveyed to the state party that there will be consequences for their decision to run the ad. He was simply allowed to assert that he's done “everything that I can” to stop it -- though this plainly isn't true. North Carolina Republican Party chairwoman Linda Daves says she hasn't had a conversation with McCain about the ad. It seems a pretty safe assumption that John McCain is capable of getting the chair of the North Carolina state party on the phone if he really wants to.

While MSNBC and other media outlets fell all over themselves giving McCain credit for opposing the ad, National Review Online's Jim Geraghty took a less credulous approach:

I'm hearing a great deal of complaints [from conservatives] about John McCain's disavowal and disapproval of a North Carolina GOP ad.


Does no one else see what's going on here?

How many other North Carolina Republican Party ads have you heard about this year? Last year? The year before that?

By criticizing the ad, McCain turned it into a national story, which means the ad is likely to be replayed on the cable networks and linked on YouTube and discussed on the talk shows and talk radio and written about in newspapers and magazines. This ad has 76,000 views on YouTube already, and it was posted online Tuesday.

And McCain gets to take the high road, saying he doesn't want to see negative campaigning done on his behalf.

You know the “mainstream” media is in the tank for John McCain when even the conservative National Review is less likely to take his claims at face value than the likes of NBC and ABC are.

It simply isn't plausible that nobody at ABC or NBC News can think of a single way McCain or Duncan might be able to pressure the North Carolina Republican Party to dump this ad if they really didn't want it to run. The only other possibility is that they do recognize the obvious fact that McCain could do more to stop the ad if he really thought it is “imperative” that it be stopped -- but that they are unwilling to say so and prefer to let McCain have his cake and eat it, too. Worse, they behave as though it is their role to spoon-feed it to him.

The upshot of all of this is that an attack ad produced by the North Carolina Republican Party got nearly nonstop (free) airtime on television news for multiple days to John McCain's presumed benefit, and those same news reports obediently reported that McCain himself is a swell guy who disapproves of such harsh tactics -- without bothering to note that he hadn't actually done anything to stop the ad.

And this is becoming a pattern, as Media Matters has documented: John McCain gets great press for making what increasingly seem to be empty promises to run a respectful campaign; people connected to his campaign engage in the kind of politics he decries; and the cycle repeats itself over and over again.

And then there's Floyd Brown's latest effort. The far-right hatchet man responsible for the Willie Horton ad in 1988 recently unveiled an attack ad aimed at Barack Obama -- an ad that Brown has not actually purchased any airtime for. Then again, maybe he doesn't have to -- not when MSNBC is willing to run it for free.

When MSNBC aired the ad during Thursday's edition of MSNBC Live, anchor Contessa Brewer noted: “Well, here's the catch: Brown does not have a single ad buy in any TV market. Instead of paying for airtime, he just announces this in a press release for outlets like YouTube to pick up.”

Or like, perhaps ... MSNBC?

(YouTube, by the way, isn't an “outlet” that “picks up” video; it is a website to which anyone can post their own videos. MSNBC is an outlet that picks up, and airs for free, right-wing attack ads.)

Brewer then asked, "[I]s this a new way to get your ad covered without buying any time?"

No, in fact, it's an age-old and incredibly well-known way to get your ad covered without buying any time, as any journalist or political operative should know. And Brewer and MSNBC fell for it -- or chose to go along with it.

How old? How well-known? The makers of what may be the two most famous political advertisements in American history employed this very tactic. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson's campaign paid for the “Daisy Ad” to air only one time -- but millions more people saw it when the three networks played the ad as part of their news broadcasts. And the Willie Horton ad -- for which Floyd Brown was partially responsible -- aired on cable television in only two New England markets before gaining a wider audience via the news media.

And so, because MSNBC was taken in by the oldest trick in the book (or pretends to have been), an anti-Obama attack ad that is airing nowhere gets a national television audience.

Who needs the RNC when you have MSNBC?

Jamison Foser is Executive Vice President at Media Matters for America.