Sen. John McCain was once known as a media favorite, but lately he's been at odds with news people — and he's added a new twist.
Katie Couric of CBS News asked Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin about whether her remarks on Pakistan represented a rift with her running mate. McCain himself had a ready answer. He called it "gotcha journalism."
That's familiar terrain for Republicans and, in fact, for politicians generally. Here's the twist: Last week, when The New York Times reported on McCain campaign manager Rick Davis' ties to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the troubled mortgage giants, senior campaign official Steve Schmidt had a ready answer, too.
"Whatever The New York Times once was, it is today not by any standard a journalistic organization," Schmidt told reporters on a conference call.
Just to underscore the point: Schmidt's response was that The New York Times is not a legitimate source of news.
"It is a pro-Obama advocacy organization that every day attacks the McCain campaign, attacks Sen. McCain, attacks Palin and excuses Sen. Obama," Schmidt said.
Further revelations in the paper about Davis' and McCain's ties to casino lobbyists led the campaign to respond that The New York Times was losing all credibility.
New York Times political editor Richard Stevenson says day-to-day relations with McCain officials are professional, and that the senator has continued to grant the newspaper some interviews. As for those stories, Stevenson says, the facts hold up.
"No one has disputed the facts that we have reported about Rick Davis' involvement with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac," Stevenson tells NPR. "The campaign's criticisms of us have often had very little specificity behind them that holds up to scrutiny."
Media Attacks To Boost Support
John Harris, editor-in-chief of Politico, says the campaign's attacks are not really intended to debate the merits of the stories. Instead, they're intended to rally the faithful. For more than a generation, conservatives have argued that the political press stacks the deck against them — and Harris says the McCain camp is stoking that fire once again.
"I think most of us take it with a heavy dose of salt," Harris says. "I doubt even the people in the McCain campaign making those charges fully believe their own rhetoric or the implications of their rhetoric."
When Politico writer Ben Smith pointed out a "simple, often inexplicable misstatements of fact" made by Schmidt about Obama and Democratic running mate Joe Biden in that conference call early last week, a campaign spokesman said Politico was "quibbling with ridiculously small details."
Another campaign spokesperson e-mailed a terse response:
"You are in the tank."
McCain's New Attitude Toward The Media
The cliche is that McCain is just working the refs, like all politicians seeking an advantage. The reality is that at least in public, his campaign appears to be challenging the media's right to be seen as a referee at all. That's a high-stakes game.
During the primaries, Obama's aides also tried to fight against coverage of the Democrat's relationship with his incendiary former pastor and with a corrupt donor. But on the whole, that was behind the scenes. And Politico's Harris says McCain is unlikely to draw swing voters by tapping resentment against the press. It hasn't always worked in the past.
"When George H.W. Bush was complaining about press coverage and imploring his supporters to 'annoy the media,' that was in the middle of a losing campaign," Harris says.
McCain's warm rapport with journalists has been so ingrained that his campaign's turnabout has caught short some former aides.
"It's surprising," said Torie Clarke, who worked for McCain on Capitol Hill. "John McCain is a fellow who gained national prominence largely through his relationship with the media."
But that warmth has chilled. Aside from network interviews with ABC's Charles Gibson and CBS' Couric, the formerly open campaign has largely kept reporters at bay from Gov. Palin. When McCain and Palin met with the president of Georgia last week, McCain invited questions from reporters and photographers ushered in at the end. Aides cut them off. After Palin's periodically halting responses to Couric, the campaign is prepping her for Thursday's debate with Biden.
Shifting To Proven GOP Media Strategy
McCain's shift to an antagonist stance toward the media resembles past Republican tactics. In one example from this summer, NBC's Andrea Mitchell came under fire after refuting a Republican claim that Obama refused to visit wounded veterans in Germany when he couldn't bring along television cameras.
"I just stood my ground and it passed — it was ... a squall," Mitchell said. "Clearly what's happening now with The New York Times is a bigger storm — and it's a bigger issue."
McCain's campaign has even written the president of NBC to complain of systemic bias. McCain veterans say his wariness toward the press is understandable.
"You know, you remember the old song, "In a Town Without Pity?" asks Dan Schnur, the communications director for McCain's unsuccessful presidential bid in 2000.
"This campaign takes place in a town without context. So if you say anything fun, something funny — something interesting — your opponent or someone is going to take it out of context and you're going to spend the rest of the week explaining yourself," he said.