McCain's Bias Claim: Truth or Tactic?

Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain
Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain addresses members of the media in Brecksville, Ohio, on Sept. 2
Stephan Savoia / AP
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Ever since Spiro Agnew lambasted the press in 1970 as "nattering nabobs of negativism," Republicans have reveled in attacking the national media for its so-called liberal bias. President George H.W. Bush ran for re-election in 1992 with a bumper sticker that read "Annoy the media: Re-elect Bush." His son, President George W. Bush, trotted before cameras in 2001 with a copy of Bernard Goldberg's book on the subject, Bias, conspicuously cradled in his hand.

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For most of his career, Arizona Senator John McCain would jokingly refer to reporters as "communists," but his relationship with the press was so mutually affectionate that he and his aides happily referred to the media as their "base."

Those days are over. What began as the campaign's midsummer turn away from McCain's freewheeling give-and-take with the press has turned into an all-out war on the media.

For the past week, the campaign has written off much of the skepticism about the qualifications of vice-presidential pick Sarah Palin as the reaction of a biased media establishment out of touch with real Americans. "She's not part of the Washington, D.C., cocktail circuit," Steve Schmidt, one of McCain's senior advisers, told TIME. "Elite opinion looks down with contempt at people who are not part of their world." Left unmentioned was the fact that McCain himself has been an A-list member of the Washington élite since he arrived in the capital more than 30 years ago. (See photos of McCain's tumultuous convention week here.)

Part of the new approach is clearly tactical. Picking fights with the national press typically riles the Republican base. One of the McCain campaign's largest single fund-raising days came in February, the day after the New York Times raised questions about McCain's relationship with a lobbyist, a story the campaign condemned as an attack by the liberal media. Since then, the campaign has fired off public letters charging bias at news organizations as varied as Newsweek and MSNBC. During the GOP convention, the campaign canceled McCain's appearance on Larry King Live in retaliation for the supposedly unfair questioning CNN anchor Campbell Brown pursued with a campaign spokesman. And they have complained privately about coverage to many other news outlets, including TIME.

The approach also reflects what aides describe as McCain's increasing personal frustration with the press. He is aggravated, aides say, by what he calls the mainstream media's favoritism of Barack Obama — proven, he contends, by the volume and tone of coverage that the Democratic nominee receives. McCain also feels that his inquisitors are consumed with the pursuit of frivolous "gotcha" questions. In two of his last open sessions with reporters this summer, McCain fumbled on answers about federal subsidies for Viagra and contraception, and whether he approved one of his campaign messages. Neither question sought answers to significant issues in the election, but the fallout from his responses, in the form of negative coverage, lingered for weeks.

Although McCain was one of the last holdouts in his campaign for continuing the signature "Straight Talk" sessions, he now embraces a tightly supervised separation from the media pack. He has not held a press conference since early August, and reporters traveling with him can go days without seeing the candidate up close, and weeks without an opportunity to exchange a word with him. In a recent pre-convention interview with TIME, McCain dismissed many of the questions — including ones that seemed benign to the reporters posing them — as gotcha attacks, and refused to answer others. He was similarly brusque in an August interview with Politico.

At the same time, the McCain campaign has struggled to reclaim the national political narrative from Obama. A review of 17,455 print stories between July 7 and Aug. 17 by the news-clip warehouse LexisNexis found that Obama received 38% more coverage than McCain. The tone of the coverage, the analysts concluded, was "remarkably similar," with about 31% of the Obama coverage categorized as "negative" compared with 33% of the McCain coverage. Magazines have also shown a preference for covering Obama, with the younger candidate scoring covers of Rolling Stone, GQ, People, Vanity Fair and Men's Vogue. So far this year, Obama has graced TIME's cover seven times, compared with three for McCain and one for his running mate, Sarah Palin. Newsweek has placed Obama-focused stories on the cover eight times in 2008, vs. four for McCain. "The press decided the campaign was going to be about Obama," Mark Salter, McCain's close adviser and co-author of his books, said last month. "There was nothing we could do about that. The race is as we found it."

Much of the coverage has a simple explanation: the press is biased — toward the most commercial narrative. Barack Obama is a political newcomer, the first African-American nominee of a major party, and he defeated the first serious female candidate, who happened to be married to the previous sitting President. The popular demand for information and analysis about Obama's rise has been, for most of the campaign, unquenchable.

In the 2000 campaign cycle, McCain was the benefactor of the same phenomenon. Back then, McCain was broadly introduced to the public as an unconventional politician, a prisoner of war and a man of principle, and he received far more enthusiastic coverage than his Republican rival, George W. Bush. In recent days, the introduction of Sarah Palin, a newcomer on the national scene, has proven again that nothing creates a media feeding frenzy faster than a new face and an unconventional biography.

But there's more to the McCain campaign's claims of bias than numbers or narratives. Complicating the debate is the metastasis of informal, and unreliable, information sources online. As soon as the Palin pick was announced, liberal-leaning websites and blogs swirled with rumors about Palin's personal life, and in their critique of the press, surrogates for McCain have conflated such websites and opinion columnists with the reporting of major news organizations.

Whether the confusion between news sources is real — which would be understandable, given the dramatic changes in the media landscape between the 2004 and '08 elections — or convenient strategy, there's no question that anger at the press can be effective. It may even help McCain narrow his long-standing "enthusiasm gap" — the glaring difference between the intensity of support for McCain compared with support for Obama — with the Republican base. But some Republicans worry that neither play will lift McCain to victory in November. "They're getting the base excited, that's obvious," says a GOP strategist not affiliated with the campaign. "But these are tactics that get you to 45%. I don't see their strategy to get McCain to 50%. And [by attacking the media] they're doing harm to McCain's brand." Said another GOP consultant attending the convention festivities in St. Paul: "Attack the media is what you do when you're losing."