Media Myths of McCain

The "Media Myths of McCain" detail the truths hiding benneth the surface of the media's coverage of John McCain. From his supposed status as a "maverick" and "straight talker" to his supposed independence from lobbyists, this site details the real John McCain seldomly portrayed in the media landscape. Taken together, these myths show just how big of a Free Ride the Arizona Senator has received from the media over the years.

  1. John McCain is a maverick.
  2. John McCain is a moderate.
  3. John McCain is a straight-talker.
  4. John McCain is a reformer.
  5. John McCain doesn't do things just
    because they're politically expedient.
  6. Just about all you need to know about
    John McCain's character is that he showed
    courage as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.
  7. John McCain has too much integrity
    to use his war record to his political advantage.
  8. John McCain is the lobbyist's biggest enemy.
  9. The media honeymoon with John McCain is over.
  10. John McCain has considerable foreign policy expertise.

1. John McCain is a maverick.

It sometimes seems that you can't read a story about John McCain without seeing him referred to as a "maverick." But is it true?

Perhaps no word has been used to describe John McCain more often than "maverick." In January and February of 2008 alone, McCain was called a "maverick" more than 1,300 times in newspapers and on television. And those who use the label to describe McCain rarely explain just what he has done to earn it. But a closer examination of his record shows that McCain isn't quite the maverick that he is made out to be. The truth is that McCain's breaks from the Republican Party line are few and far between. According to Congressional Quarterly's "party unity" ratings, since he came to the Senate in 1989, there have been only three years in which McCain voted with his party less than 80 percent of the time. When he has gone against the party line -- such as on campaign finance reform, global warming, or tobacco regulations -- McCain has taken a position that was overwhelmingly popular with the public, meaning that when he takes a "maverick" stance, he's gaining support with the public -- and hardly taking a political risk.

Just as important, McCain's acts of independence aren't so much on high-profile issues as they are on issues that the press makes high-profile, precisely because of McCain's involvement. In all these cases, something important happens in the media when McCain opposes his party. When an ordinary senator crosses party lines, he or she will join members of the other party and perhaps have occasional opportunities to be quoted or interviewed on the issue in question. When McCain crosses party lines, on the other hand, the story the news media write undergoes a shift: It then becomes a story not about a conflict between Democrats and Republicans, but a story about John McCain and his rebellion. This is why McCain is perceived to be much more of a maverick than Republicans such as Olympia Snowe or Susan Collins, who actually break with the GOP far more often. Yet journalists continue over and over to call McCain a "maverick," seldom questioning whether there might be more to the story.

2. John McCain is a moderate.

The news media consistently portray McCain as someone above ideology, with appeal to independents and a scorn for dogma. The record tells a different story.

A New Republic headline during John McCain's first run for president sums up the media's views on McCain's politics and ideology: "This Man Is Not a Republican." Since his rise to prominence on the national scene, McCain has been routinely referred to as a moderate -- despite the fact that both his voting record and McCain himself attest that he is a reliable conservative. Take abortion. Over the years, McCain has voted for cutting federal funding of family planning clinics that counseled pregnant women on abortion and has supported a ban on late-term abortion. He has consistently received zero ratings from NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood. In 2000, hard-line social conservative Gary Bauer actually endorsed McCain over Bush because he said McCain assured him he would appoint pro-life judges to the Supreme Court (Free Ride, Page 139).

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. He has opposed extending the assault weapons ban, federal hate crimes legislation, the establishment of the International Criminal Court, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, pro-labor legislation, ergonomics rules, lawsuits against gun manufacturers, and benefits for gay partners. He has supported privatizing Social Security, conservative judicial appointments, the teaching of intelligent design in public schools, tax cuts for the wealthy, and the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools (Free Ride, Pages 139-140). On national security, McCain has consistently proven himself to be one of our most hawkish senators. Conservative groups such as the American Conservative Union and the Christian Coalition of America routinely give McCain high marks (Free Ride, Pages 145-146). As McCain himself has said: "I've always been a conservative. I think my voting record clearly indicates that on economic issues, national security issues, social issues -- I'm pro-life -- so I think I could make an argument I've had a pretty clear 20-some-year record basically being conservative" (Free Ride, Page 153). If only the media believed him.

3. John McCain is a straight-talker.

If there is any term that approaches the ubiquity of "maverick" in stories about John McCain, it's "straight talk." But the truth is that John McCain's tongue is often as forked as any other politician's.

A straight-talker says what's on his mind, regardless of the political consequences. In the public imagination, it also extends beyond talk and into the realm of action: Straight talk means taking a definitive and unshakable stand on an issue. The typical politician avoids taking a stand unless he really has to; a straight-talker takes a stand even when it hurts him. This definition certainly fits John McCain as the media have presented him to the public.

But the truth is that McCain has been just as guilty as other politicians of attempting to be all things to all people. For instance, in 2006, McCain made a highly public gesture of embracing Jerry Falwell, a man whom he once described as an "agent of intolerance." Perhaps McCain's run for the White House -- and the need to curry favor with religious conservatives -- had something to do with it. On tax cuts, McCain was an opponent of George W. Bush's tax cuts in 2001. But when they came up for extension in 2006, the senator chose to support them -- appealing to the conservative base in the process. He now claims he opposed the tax cuts only because they were not offset by spending cuts, but the truth is that, at the time, he said he was against them because they were tilted to the wealthy. On abortion, McCain once said, "[C]ertainly in the short term, or even the long term, I would not support repeal of Roe vs. Wade." And yet he had also told an anti-choice group in a letter, "I share our common goal of reducing the staggering number of abortions currently performed in this country and overturning the Roe vs. Wade decision" (Free Ride, Pages 160-161). Today, his website reads, "John McCain believes Roe v. Wade is a flawed decision that must be overturned." When he ran for president in 2000, he skipped the Iowa caucus, and made clear his contempt for ethanol made from Iowa corn. "Ethanol does nothing to reduce fuel consumption, nothing to increase our energy independence, nothing to improve our air quality," he said in 2003. Yet in 2008, he decided to compete in the Iowa caucus, and had a change of heart on ethanol. "I do not support subsidies, but I support ethanol and I think it is a vital alternative energy source, not only because of our dependence on foreign oil but because of its greenhouse reduction effects," he said in August 2006.

With straight talk like that, who needs waffling?

4. John McCain is a reformer.

When reporters think "political reform," there's one name that comes to mind: John McCain. But is his image as a reformer all it's cracked up to be?

In 1989, John McCain was embroiled in one of the biggest financial scandals in American history: the Keating Five. Yet far from ending his career, the scandal has since been spun as a defining moment for the senator, the event that set him straight and inspired his transformation into a reformer. The media have eagerly bought this line, and mentions of McCain's involvement in the Keating Five, already few, are usually framed in redemptive terms. But if you look closely at McCain's life, one can see the hallmarks of the typical politician -- the reliance on powerful lobbyists, the close ties with industries in his regulatory purview, the specter of conflict of interest. Indeed, McCain has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of campaign contributions from the telecom, transportation, and media industries. What do all these companies have in common? They all have interests before the Senate Commerce Committee, which McCain chaired. Their support paid off. Corporations such as EchoStar, BellSouth, Ameritech, and -- as The New York Times recently reported -- Paxson Communications, among others, benefited from McCain's actions on their behalf (Free Ride, Page 109).

Then there is McCain's advocacy of campaign finance reform, which more than anything has made him the premier reformer in the eyes of the media. Five years later, it would be difficult for anyone to argue that McCain-Feingold actually cleaned up the campaign finance system. Rather than diminishing, the amount of money spent on political campaigns has exploded. The legislation also had the effect of boosting the Republican Party at the expense of the Democratic Party. At the time, the Democrats relied much more heavily on soft money donations, particularly from labor unions, than did Republicans. And McCain knew that as well as anyone. When Americans for Tax Reform aired an ad in New Hampshire in 1999 accusing him of helping Democrats by working to ban soft money, McCain's spokesman protested to the Associated Press, "In fact banning soft money will help the Republican Party because it will stop the flow of cash which runs around the clock from the big labor unions straight into the Democratic Party's coffers" (Free Ride, Pages 24-25).

5. John McCain doesn't do things just because they're politically expedient.

Unlike all the other politicians, John McCain doesn't pander, doesn't tell people what they want to hear, and makes decisions based not on what's good politics, but on what's right. Or so the news media would have you believe.

In early January 2008, Newsweek editor Jon Meacham wrote: "The apparent reconsideration of the candidacy of John McCain is good news for all of us, whatever our politics, for McCain has proved in the campaign what he proved in Vietnam: that patience is a virtue, and, when in doubt, principle is worth a try." This is the John McCain the press has presented to us: unwavering in principle, and propped up by endless political courage.

But you don't have to look far to find examples of McCain pandering. Consider his decision in 2000 to denounce the Confederate flag flying over the South Carolina statehouse -- when the South Carolina primary approached, he announced that the flag was, in fact, a symbol of heritage. After the primaries, when the need to curry favor with Southern voters had passed, McCain admitted that he had pandered on the flag issue. But to the media, McCain did nothing of the sort. Instead, "McCain displayed political courage -- belatedly, but powerfully," according to The New York Times. Time and again, the same pattern has repeated itself: McCain panders, the media look the other way or explain it away (Free Ride, Pages 117-118).

As he prepared to make his second run for the presidency, McCain made a series of public shifts on his positions, the most ballyhooed of which was his rapprochement with Jerry Falwell, whom he had once denounced as an "agent of intolerance." The media noted the senator's rightward drift, but while a few criticized him for his fairly obvious attempt to pander to the Republican base, most of the media stuck to the script. According to his liberal advocates, the maverick was only suppressing his maverick instincts and doing what he needed to do to win the nomination. Once past the nomination process, the thinking went, the real, more moderate McCain would return. Jacob Weisberg, writing in Slate, said that McCain's shift was "a stratagem -- the only one, in fact, that gives him a shot at surviving a Republican presidential primary." Jonathan Chait called McCain's shift a "fake right" (Free Ride, Pages 178-79). In recent months, McCain has backtracked on his positions on immigration and taxes, with an eye toward pleasing the conservative base. It goes without saying that any other politician who tried a similar gambit would be criticized for such blatant pandering. But for John McCain, the rules are different.

6. Just about all you need to know about John McCain's character is that he showed courage as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

No one doubts that McCain showed courage, and suffered greatly, in his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. But the press would have you believe that Vietnam makes any questions about McCain's character -- such as those based on what he's done in the four decades since -- not worth asking.

John McCain endured terrible suffering during the five and a half years he spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and in the course of that time, he displayed admirable courage, even heroism. No decent person would contest those facts. But it does not necessarily follow that McCain's Vietnam history should function as a halo reducing all questions of character -- a press obsession, particularly when it comes to presidential candidates -- to the story of the Hanoi Hilton. To be sure, McCain's Vietnam experience is a key part of his character, but it is, after all, only a part. But that is not how the press sees it. For John McCain, Vietnam is nearly the entirety of the character story we are told (Free Ride, Page 6).

And the story is told again, and again, and again, even when it has no connection to the issue at hand. Reporters routinely drop in to their stories the phrase, "McCain, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam ..." as though it were simply a piece of identifying information, like "Arizona senator." A Nexis search of the terms "prisoner of war" or "POW" within 10 words of "McCain" produces more than 1,000 hits in newspapers in 2007 alone.

Because of the fixation on his Vietnam experience, the media obscure from the public other aspects of his character that might raise more questions. For instance, McCain almost always finishes at the top of the list for "Hottest Temper" in Congress in Washingtonian magazine's "Best and Worst of Congress" survey. Indeed, McCain's path to power is trailed by burned bridges and broken friendships because of his volcanic outbursts. Yet few people seem to know this about the Arizona senator. (A Gallup poll in August 2006 found that only 2 percent of respondents cited his temper as a quality they disliked in McCain.) McCain has also been known to spout the occasional mean-spirited joke. At a Republican fundraiser in 1998, McCain told the following gem: "Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because Janet Reno is her father and Hillary Clinton is her mother." Any other politician who was caught on record saying such a vicious thing would be torn apart by the media. But McCain got away scot-free. The New York Times' Maureen Dowd quoted a magazine editor as saying that the McCain-media love affair was "a return to the Kennedy era. He makes a gaffe, and we look the other way" (Free Ride, Page 85-104).

Because McCain is viewed, and sometimes described, as an "anti-politician" to whom the sins of his profession don't apply, matters like his considerable capacity for ambition and opportunism, or his personal foibles, are swept aside. How many voters know, for instance, that he admitted cheating on his first wife before divorcing her and marrying a wealthy heiress, then buying a house in Arizona on the very day a congressman whose seat he wanted to take announced his retirement? The point isn't that those things should disqualify him from the presidency. But they are also part of McCain's story.

7. John McCain has too much integrity to use his war record to his political advantage.

The press has told us many times that John McCain is reluctant to bring up his captivity in Vietnam in political contexts. The only problem is, he does it all the time.

Everybody knows by now that John McCain served our country honorably in Vietnam. But a key part of McCain's Vietnam story as the press tells it is that the senator is reluctant to mention it. As Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post once wrote, "McCain doesn't talk much about those days, but he doesn't have to." In the words of The Washington Examiner's Bill Sammon, "Unlike Sen. John Kerry, McCain rarely mentions his Vietnam service without prompting" (Free Ride, Page 14). McCain himself has said the same thing: "One of the things I've never tried to do is exploit my Vietnam service to my country because it would be totally inappropriate to do," McCain once said (Free Ride, Page 9).

But for someone who supposedly doesn't want to talk about his experience as a POW, McCain sure does bring it up a lot. The truth is that he mentions it all the time. He talks about it seriously, he jokes about it, and he uses it to his political advantage. His first campaign for Congress was built on his Vietnam heroism, including when he responded to the potentially fatal (and true) accusation of carpetbagging by saying, "[T]he place I lived longest in my life was Hanoi" (Free Ride, Page 48). His emergence on the national stage came during his keynote address at the 1996 Republican convention, a speech that concerned his captivity in Vietnam. His first TV ad in New Hampshire for the 2000 primaries was a 60-second spot featuring black-and-white still photographs and footage of McCain as a fighter pilot. Faith of My Fathers, McCain's memoir of his wartime experience, came out in 1999, conveniently timed for the start of his campaign.

For his current campaign, McCain has not been shy about invoking Vietnam. In March 2007, the campaign sent out an email marking the anniversary of McCain's release from the Hanoi Hilton, retelling the story of his captivity. On his campaign website, the featured video on the main page is called "Courageous Service," which highlights McCain's POW experience and Vietnam service. His campaign has run ads showing him as a POW. Indeed, when one looks over McCain's career, one sees that at nearly every key moment, he has reaped political benefit from talking about Vietnam.

Of course, McCain has every right to talk about his military service as much as he pleases, just as many candidates did before him. It is his history, and no one has ever disputed the facts of what he went through. But no reporter should fool him or herself into thinking that McCain is reluctant to do so.

8. John McCain is the lobbyist's biggest enemy.

Nobody is supposed to be a greater adversary to the lobbyists who prowl the halls of Congress looking for special interest handouts than John McCain. But all it takes is a look at his campaign staff list to puncture that myth.

The media have long perpetuated a myth of John McCain as the bane of Washington lobbyists. It is just that -- a myth. Even before his current campaign, the senator reached out to lobbyists in preparation for his run. A March 8, 2006, story in The Hill reported that "lobbyists say that McCain has been reaching out to K Street to strengthen his national fundraising network." A February 3, 2007, National Journal article by Peter H. Stone and James A. Barnes reported that McCain and Mitt Romney are "working overtime to line up influential allies on K Street who can deliver supporters and campaign cash." The article reported that on "January 22, David Girard-diCarlo, the chairman of Blank Rome, which is headquartered in Pennsylvania, escorted McCain to Pittsburgh and Harrisburg to meet with influential donors and fundraisers. And on January 31, the senator attended a Capitol Hill luncheon at the Monocle restaurant that drew two dozen trade association leaders and potential allies."

According to Public Citizen, McCain's campaign has more current and former lobbyist bundlers -- lobbyists who raise money by pooling donations from themselves and others -- than any other candidate. According to Thomas Edsall, a former Washington Post reporter and political editor of The Huffington Post, McCain "has more lobbyists working on his staff or as advisers than any of his competitors, Republican or Democrat." And a study by Media Matters for America has also found numerous McCain staffers or advisers who were registered to lobby Congress as of year-end 2007 or were previously lobbyists. The current or former lobbyists working for McCain include his campaign manager, his deputy campaign manager, his chief political adviser, his chief fundraiser, and the chief of staff of his Senate office.

9. The media honeymoon with John McCain is over.

Some conservatives have claimed that while McCain got great coverage in the past, the press has become much more critical in recent days. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In recent weeks, some commentators have suggested that the media have turned on John McCain, pointing to a New York Times article about McCain's ties with a lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, and a political favor he did for Iseman's client, Paxson Communications. In the wake of the story, conservative host Rush Limbaugh said that it was "the drive-by media turning on its favorite maverick and trying to take him out." Conservative pundit Laura Ingraham suggested that the McCain-media marriage was at an end, asking, "Did McCain think that having all these people on the Straight Talk Express -- and getting Jonathan Alter and all these guys to sit down with him and laugh and chat -- do you think that was going to inoculate him from this kind of absurd attack?" But what was just as notable about the episode was what happened afterward. MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Joe Scarborough, along with other major media figures, hammered the Times for running the story. In less than a day, the story was transformed from one about John McCain's connections with lobbyists seeking his favor into one about the ethics of The New York Times.

And days after it was reported, the issue all but disappeared from newspapers, despite the fact that McCain's claim that he had never met with broadcaster Lowell "Bud" Paxson prior to writing a letter to the FCC on his behalf was false. A Nexis search of "McCain" and "Paxson" after February 23 -- the date it was reported that Paxson contradicted McCain's claims that they never met -- turned up only seven hits from U.S. newspapers. So much for a feeding frenzy.

Further evidence proving the continuing love affair between McCain and the media comes from the media itself. A March 10 story in The New York Times reported that McCain would "continue to hold forth with reporters" on the campaign bus, with aides believing that such access would make "McCain less likely to be the subject of what they call 'gotcha' journalism." The article went on to add, "That seemed to be borne out last week, when Mr. McCain briefly tripped over the name of the new Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev. Reporters, who have been known to quiz candidates on the names of foreign leaders, did not pounce." On the March 9 edition of CNN's Reliable Sources, in a discussion about an incident in which McCain lost his temper with the Times' Elisabeth Bumiller, Time.com Washington editor Ana Marie Cox noted that "it's almost always someone who has not -- who hasn't been with the campaign ... that's going to make a call that makes [McCain] look bad." (Bumiller, according to Cox, was new to the McCain beat.) Asked by Kurtz if reporters who travel with McCain "become part of the bubble, part of the team," Cox replied, "Become part of the bubble, and also, I mean, I think what happens is that you -- if you've been covering him for a long time, there's a sense that, well, he does that all the time, it's not worth reporting." And so it goes for the media and John McCain.

10. John McCain has considerable foreign policy expertise.

The media have said over and over that McCain has "credibility" and "expertise" on foreign policy. It's worth asking what that expertise consists of.

In the February 26 Democratic debate in Cleveland, moderator Brian Williams told Sen. Barack Obama that he "could be going into a general election against a Republican with vast foreign policy expertise and credibility on national security." For almost his entire career, foreign policy has been regarded as one of John McCain's strengths. But a closer examination of his record contradicts that image. Take Iraq. McCain was one of the strongest proponents of the war to oust Saddam Hussein. In the run-up to the war, a September 29, 2002, online CNN article quoted him predicting, "We're not going to get into house-to-house fighting in Baghdad. We may have to take out buildings, but we're not going to have a bloodletting of trading American bodies for Iraqi bodies." In May 2003, McCain wrote: "Thanks to a war plan that represented a revolutionary advance in military science, to the magnificent performance of our armed forces, and to the firm resolve of the President, the war in Iraq succeeded beyond the most optimistic expectations." Asked whether Iraqis would greet us as liberators, he replied, "Absolutely. Absolutely." (He would later lambaste the Bush administration for giving the public "too rosy a scenario" about Iraq.)

As the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, McCain has amplified his criticism of the administration's policy -- even as he proposes to keep the United States in Iraq for 100 years. Commenting on the sectarian violence in Iraq, McCain said in 2006, "One of the things I would do if I were president would be to sit the Shiites and the Sunnis down and say, 'Stop the bullshit.' " The idea that all the Iraqis needed was a swift kick in the pants might have marked McCain as a deeply unserious thinker when it came to foreign affairs and national security -- had anyone bothered to notice. As The New Republic's John Judis put it, "He was wrong about [Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed] Chalabi, he was wrong about Iraq's ties to Al Qaeda and WMD, he was wrong about the reaction of Iraqis to the invasion, and he was wrong about the effects on the wider Muslim world." But none of that matters. To most of the media, McCain remains the candidate with the most foreign policy expertise.

As to what McCain thinks about the rest of the world and how the United States should conduct its foreign policy, it's not always easy to tell. The "issues" section of his website contains no page for foreign policy, and what he says on the topic often raises more questions than it answers. For instance, McCain has often said he would "follow Osama bin Laden to the gates of hell," but when he was asked exactly how he'd go about finding the Al Qaeda leader, McCain cited a secret plan. "One thing I will not do is telegraph my punches. Osama bin Laden will be the last to know," he said, adding, "I have my own ideas and it would require implementation of certain policies and procedures that only as the president of the United States can be taken." He has also promised, "There's gonna be other wars," and said of Iran, Libya, and North Korea, "I'd institute a policy that I call 'rogue state rollback.' I would arm, train, equip, both from without and from within, forces that would eventually overthrow the governments and install free and democratically elected governments."

Free Ride: John McCain and the Media

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