Monday, November 14, 2005

# Posted 12:31 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

JOURNALISTS KOWTOW TO McCAIN: Take a look at the transcript [.pdf] from yesterday morning's Face the Nation. Almost every question for John McCain was a total softball. Here's my favorite:
[BOB] SCHIEFFER: Senator, if there's anybody in this country that's an expert on prisoners of war -- I mean you spent about five years in that hotel run by the Vietnamese in Hanoi. Why do you feel so strongly about [torture]?
Even though I am a very, very, very big fan of McCain, there's really no excuse for this kind of pandering. It's not as if Bob Schieffer and Elisabeth Bumiller don't know how to ask tough questions. They do it all the time. But McCain gets a pass.

One reason for that pass is that journalists like to use McCain as a foil for Bush. They bring him on the show or do an interview because all they really want is for a popular Republican to contradict the president. In other words, they're not interested in taking a careful look at exactly what McCain thinks and why.

But you also have to consider McCain's reputation as a straight-shooter. He makes journalists feel that he'll give them the truth even if they don't ask tough questions or lay elaborate traps, a la Tim Russert. In addition, McCain cultivates an aura of self-awareness that journalists' value tremendously. Consider this:
Ms. BUMILLER: Senator, let me ask you about a recent poll that shows you neck and neck with former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for the Republican nomination, and you're just edging out Hillary Clinton for the presidency. When are you going to make a decision and what is your thinking right now about a campaign?

Sen. McCAIN: Those polling numbers are wonderful for the ego, and mine is sizable, but the fact is, they're [a result of] name ID.
A lot of scholars have observed that Ronald Reagan made journalists like him by being self-deprecating. But McCain takes this a very important step further by being self-aware, for example talking about his own ego.

In an earlier post about spin doctors, I argued that self-awareness is the attribute that journalists value most highly. One might object that the cost of being that honest is greater than the benefits. After all, look at what journalists did to Howard Dean after "the scream".

However, McCain's success demonstrates that you can be a media darling for years on end if you know how to play your cards right. What I really want to know is whether McCain will keep getting the kid glove treatment once he is actually running against a Democrat for president.

In the primaries, I'd say it's a foregone conclusion that McCain will get better press coverage than any of his opponents. But in a general election, journalists will begin to realize -- subconsciously, in most cases -- that giving McCain good coverage may actually result in the Republicans holding onto the White House.

Until now, lionizing McCain has had minimal costs. I can't wait to see what happens when the rubber hits the road.
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