AJR  Columns
From AJR,   June/July 2008

Monitoring the Maverick   

Journalists shouldn’t allow themselves to be blinded by outdated images of John McCain.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

When Sen. John McCain referred to the press as his "base," he was joking — right?

The notion that the news media are crazy about McCain was around for years before anyone had even heard of Barack Obama, let alone before it became the prevailing wisdom that journalists were swooning over him.

As Paul Farhi points out in his excellent piece (see "In the Tank?" June/July), the relationships between the news media and the candidates are generally much more complex than the reigning narratives of the moment would suggest. That said, the press will face a challenge this time when (if?) the Democratic primary season ends and we move on to the general election.

There's no doubt that McCain has long had a good relationship with reporters. And no wonder. He gives great access. He seems to enjoy the give-and-take. He conveys an air of authenticity. And he makes for great copy. The POW saga gives him serious street cred. The post-Keating Five, born-again reformer is another good story line. Then there's the "straight talk." And — sorry, there's no way around this — that whole "maverick" business.

Once a public figure's image is established, it can be tough to change. Think of Al Gore, forever the Internet-inventing résumé padder. Or John Kerry, forever the chardonnay-sipping, windsurfing Brahmin who ordered a cheesesteak in Philadelphia with, ohmigod, Swiss cheese.

That phenomenon hasn't been so good for Gore and Kerry, as you may have noticed. But it has paid big dividends for McCain.

There's no doubt that McCain earned his maverick stripes back in the day. He was a different kind of Republican, always a conservative to be sure, but one who reveled in defying the party's orthodoxy. But the John McCain running in 2008 is a far cry from the one who ran in 2000. A lot less mavericky.

The old — sorry — McCain back then was against George W. Bush's tax cuts. The current McCain embraces them.

McCain was 100 percent against torture. Then he voted against legislation that would have banned the CIA from waterboarding.

McCain once called Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson "agents of intolerance." He later withdrew the remark and spoke at Falwell's Liberty University.

Then there's the whole business about Hamas looking forward to an Obama presidency. This is an odd gambit indeed for a candidate who insists the campaign should be played out on the high road.

It's often said of Hillary Clinton, not without evidence, that she will say anything it takes to get elected. And Hillary has been endlessly pilloried for this. But McCain in this campaign has hardly performed as a high-minded model of consistency.

Save for the occasional flurry over his Sunni/Shiite gaffes, McCain has largely escaped the glare of the media in recent months. And for good reason. McCain has had the GOP nomination locked up for quite some time, and the media's focus has been on the bruising battle between Clinton and Obama.

But when the general election heats up, it will be crucial for journalists to cast a critical eye at McCain, to make sure they're not blinded by viewing him through an outdated prism.

As for Obama, he of course must receive the same sort of close, clear-eyed scrutiny, and I'm sure he'll get it. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright paroxysm was a big-time welcome to the NBA.

While journalists have been accused of having been stricken by Obamamania, I never sensed it had much to do with personal affection for the candidate. Unlike McCain, Obama has generally been aloof from the press, granting very little access to the scribes on the bus. That distance brings with it some pitfalls.

Not long ago, a friend of mine who is a national political correspondent took issue with my column blasting ABC's Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos for their questions in the Clinton/Obama faceoff in Philadelphia (see "Silly in Philly," online special). That was the one with the relentless focus on what have come to be known as "distractions."

My friend argued that journalists had to use that opportunity to question Obama about Wright and Bittergate because that was their only opportunity. In my mind, that hardly excuses the endless torrent of inquiries about gaffes and silliness, a barrage that inspired my daughter, Amanda, to text me wondering if we'd ever hear a word about issues. I don't know which was my favorite, the flag pin colloquy or the question about whether Wright loves America as much as Obama does. Nevertheless, my friend raised a valid point.

As for the positive coverage pre-Wright, my take is that the reporting reflected the fact Obama had come out of nowhere to take the lead from Clinton, the much better known candidate who had virtually been awarded the nomination by the media. And there were those huge, enthusiastic, surprising crowds. Obama was the Next Big Thing.

The weeks of negative coverage for Obama leading up to Pennsylvania showed he had returned to earth.

Once they are engaged mano a mano — barring a Hillary hail Mary — the two onetime media darlings should find themselves squarely in the media's sights. Right where they belong.