Tuesday, November 20, 2012

It's Not How McCain Said It; It's What He *Said*

As you will no doubt be aware, last Wednesday Senator John McCain called a press conference to denounce the Obama Administration's lack of forthrightness on the subject of the Benghazi attack, at the same precise moment that the Obama Administration was briefing the senate on the subject of the Benghazi attack. At the end of the press conference the senator did not take questions, but the following morning CNN producer Ted Barrett managed to catch up with him and ask why he would express outrage over an apparent cover-up by the White House, instead of attending a meeting in which the facts as we know them were being presented by the White House.

As you will no doubt be aware, the senator's reaction was blistering and profane. McCain refused to comment about why he missed the briefing -- which was conducted by top diplomatic, military and counter-terrorism officials -- instead becoming increasingly testy when pressed to explain why he wasn’t there. “I have no comment about my schedule and I’m not going to comment on how I spend my time to the media,” McCain said. Asked why he wouldn’t comment, McCain grew agitated. “Because I have the right as a senator to have no comment and who the hell are you to tell me I can or not?” When CNN noted that McCain had missed a key meeting on a subject the senator has been intensely upset about, McCain said, “I’m upset that you keep badgering me.”

This story has been all over the political news, from mainstream outlets to amateur bloggers and back again, with withering coverage of McCain's once-again-proven inability to contain his emotions. Comment threads below the various stories about this incident have described Mr. McCain as a sore-headed old crank, and even some members of his own party have apparently wondered aloud at his judgment, with Senator Susan Collins referring to the proposed formation of a special investigative committee by noting that the existing Select Committee on Intelligence is already co-chaired by "Senator Carl Levin, who was at the White House briefing on Wednesday, and by Senator John McCain, who was not."

The admittedly unflattering narrative of this event, we are to believe, is that Mr. McCain is too short-tempered for either his own good or that of his party.  It's a fun story to see covered this way, not least because journalists are finally beginning to wonder -- albeit implicitly, at least for the most part -- what the Administration would stand to gain by misrepresenting what it knew and when it knew it regarding an attack on one of our consulates. Mostly, however, the coverage has been conspicuously confined to the emotional temperature of McCain's reply to Barrett. There's only one small problem with journalists covering the McCain outburst in this fashion, which is that is misses the point as completely as if they'd reported on a show-jumping competition instead.

No one doubts at this point that John McCain lacks the temperament to lead. This is dog-bites-man stuff, especially after the 2008 Presidential election campaign. His decision to assail a CNN producer in a semi-coherent fashion is at this point about as surprising as the news that Mitt Romney thinks Barack Obama won a second term by bribing people. McCain's been barking at people longer than Mitt Romney has been acting this stupid. And yes, it's fun to consider the adverse effect McCain's erratic behavior may have on independent and swing voters -- but it is nonetheless true that for the most part the American public doesn't really need all this much help to see the 2008 Presidential nominee as a sore-headed crank. What they *do* need help to see, in my opinion, is the extent to which Mr. McCain's behavior last week is in lock step with the larger narrative-framing strategies of his party. It's not, in other words, that McCain reacted differently to Ted Barrett's question than another Republican senator might have; it's that he deserved the question in the first place in *exactly* *the* *same* *way* that another Republican senator might have.

If we strip away the emotional content of both the actions and their coverage, it seems to me that, inside his own head, the last half of Mr. McCain's week went like this: (A) I can inflict political damage on the White House by claiming erroneously that they are stonewalling what they knew and when about the Benghazi attack, but (B) I can only do that if I can maintain plausible denial over having been offered the chance in good faith to find out everything the White House knows. This means that (C) if I'm going to inflict this damage, I have to time it to coincide with the White House briefing.

At this point in the chain of causality, we're not looking at anything blog-worthy as far as I can tell: Since the Contract for America in 1994, and perhaps going back to the Willie Horton ads, the Republican approach to political narrative has been consistently underhanded, cynical, and dishonest: Lie about something that has been specifically calculated to move the needle, then shout the lie over and over again at an ever higher tone of voice. This is how we got Florida in 2000. This is how we got Iraq. This is how we got the 2010 midterms. From the standpoint of (A)-(C), we've got no more newsworthy a story here than the emotional component of McCain's behavior. But do bear with me, please.

For it happens that this is the moment, in McCain's mental trajectory, when the scene was joined by Ted Barrett -- and it is Mr. Barrett's decision to ask Mr. McCain about the apparent contradiction of (A)-(C) that triggered the second act in the McCain reasoning, as follows: (D) This guy is asking me a question that will expose (A)-(C) as dishonest, and (E) the act of his doing so constitutes a one-sided effort to tamper with the public's perceptions of the issue. 

This part, ladies and gentlemen -- THIS part -- is both comparatively new as a Republican tactic, and not at all specific to John McCain. The modern Republican party believes that it has a right to intentionally and maliciously lie to the general public, as its preferred means of garnering support, and that if that approach is illuminated by a journalist, the journalist is thus miscarrying his responsibility to report impartially on what various people are saying back and forth. "The Democrats choose to tell the truth; we choose to lie," their logic seems to go, "and if you report the situation that way, you are clearly committing an act of liberal bias by attempting to influence people in favor of the Democratic side of the issue."

This is how we get a Mitt Romney campaign surrogate saying in late summer that their team "wouldn't allow their campaign to be dictated by fact-checkers"; this is how we get a Rudolph Guliani sighting, backstage at the RNC, saying that he didn't think Paul Ryan's mendacity was an issue because "nobody gets every single thing right in a speech." Somewhere in the past few years (no doubt correlated with the rise of the conservative talk-show set), Republicans have given themselves the idea that a journalist pointing out a falsehood to people is an interference in the public discourse. In the matter of McCain's answer to Barrett's question, it's not that McCain reacted with such emotional intensity, it's that the content of his answer was part-and-parcel of officially countenanced Republican dishonesty. It's not how he said it; it's what he said.

In particular there is the "who are *you* to tell me" line. This has been reported as a senate-privilege, respect-for-elders sort of gambit, but to me it seems clear that it was instead a "liberal bias in the media" gambit -- an assertion that questioning Mr. McCain's decision to skip the meeting was an act of partisan editorializing. We've seen this exact coping mechanism played with increasing regularity by Republicans over the past few years every time they are caught in a cynical manipulation of this very kind -- from Rick Perry calling Ben Bernanke a traitor to Sarah Palin calling the coverage of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting a case of "blood libel." And it is the fact that Republicans continue to expect to be able to do this, that is a newsworthy, blogworthy problem, every, time, it, happens.

I found myself in a disagreement with a friend not too long ago on the subject of why the mainstream press demurs on its investigative responsibilities -- with my friend arguing that the diminution of investigative reporting was owing to reasons of cost. In fact, there have been a steady stream of stories in which fifth-estate insiders complain that their editors are spiking stories out of fear of seeming slanted, and not at all out of fear of running-up the bill. The phenomenon is commonly called "false balance" and it is a deeply troubling problem for the future of our democracy. I am reminded of a fully vetted story -- which I regret I could not lay my hands on again after four years -- in which a pair of beat reporters working for CNN had unearthed what they considered to be a powerfully damaging story about the McCain campaign, and were told by the editorial board of CNN that they could not run the story unless they could dredge up something defensibly analogous to say about the Obama team.

Readers would have to take my word for that particular story's existence, but even non-investigative stories that are unflattering to the Republicans are being dampened by the intellectual chill presented by the doctrine of false balance. Ezra Klein didn't say that he was "troubled" by his own, scientific conclusions about the Ryan speech, out of fear of running up the bill; he was troubled because he didn't want to be called biased. Brooks Jackson, managing director of FactCheck.org, did not say that his organization would steadfastly refuse to come to a single conclusion about which campaign was being more dishonest because he was afraid of running up the bill; he said they would refuse to do so because they don't want to be called biased. Economist and media analyst Dean Baker did not say that the 2008 McCain campaign was getting favorably credulous coverage because his press pool was afraid of running up the bill; he said it happened because the press pool didn't want to be called biased.

These are not, you will notice, expensive stories to "investigate," either: Mostly they involve having access to wikipedia, a transcript of someone's speech, and a brain. If these types of stories -- the easy ones like this -- are being self-edited or spiked because of concerns about appearing biased, there can be little question that more expensive stories to investigate are never surviving pub board meetings long enough for anyone to point out their expense as a reason not to run them.

It is hardly a novel observation that a representative democracy such as ours depends crucially on the degree to which its electorate is informed, and it is hardly a novel observation that one side in our current political discourse would prefer it if the electorate were a little less so. But if the system in which we've all just participated is to be expected to continue to function to the tune of good-guy outcomes like the one we just had, we must all continue to participate. And in this instance we must start insisting -- with more regularity and more tenacity -- that our conventional information sources live up to the full array of their responsibilities. We must remind them in writing that these responsibilities include the unsavory business of risking the ire of wealthy corporate underwriters by exposing dishonesty wherever and whenever it is found.

If the recent political history of this country has shown us anything, and the John McCain / Benghazi flare-up last week is no extreme example of this, it is that demands for false balance will continue to be relied upon as a key campaign principle of the right, and that each time false balance is momentarily abandoned (by Mr. Barrett, e.g.), the right will continue to wail its shrill protests of a liberal cabal. If they are allowed to get away with such wailing unchecked -- if, for example, McCain's reactions are to be panned only for their emotional tenor and not for their content -- the tactic of demanding false balance will continue to work at least in part. It is only through the articulation of progressive outrage, that our once-respected media can begin to see an offsetting peril in their present default strategy. Indeed the expression of such outrage is, perhaps ironically, the only means available for restoring the very balance which the other side has been undermining for a generation, by claiming to demand.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

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