Formerly Close, McCain, Media Ties Now Testy Sen. John McCain was once known as a media favorite, but lately he's been at odds with news people. 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.
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Formerly Close, McCain, Media Ties Now Testy

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Formerly Close, McCain, Media Ties Now Testy

Formerly Close, McCain, Media Ties Now Testy

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There has been tension between political candidates and journalists as long as there has been power and people writing about it. Senator McCain was once a media favorite, but lately, he has been at odds with reporters and anchors. And as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, the McCain-Palin campaign has added a new twist.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: When 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, John McCain himself had a ready answer.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican Presidential Candidate): Look, I understand this day and age of "gotcha journalism."

FOLKENFLIK: Last week, when the New York Times reported on McCain campaign manager Rick Davis's ties to the troubled mortgage giants Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, senior campaign official Steve Schmidt had a ready answer, too.

Mr. STEVE SCHMIDT (Chief Campaign Strategist, McCain Presidential Campaign): Whatever the New York Times once was, it is today, not by any standard, a journalistic organization.

FOLKENFLIK: That's right. Schmidt's response was that the Times is not a legitimate source of news.

Mr. SCHMIDT: It is a pro-Obama advocacy organization that every day...

FOLKENFLIK: Further revelations about Davis's and McCain's ties with lobbyists led to the campaign's charges that the New York Times was losing all credibility. Richard Stevenson is the paper's political editor.

Mr. RICHARD STEVENSON (Political Editor, New York Times): No one has disputed the facts that we have reported about Rick Davis's involvement with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. And, you know, the campaign's criticisms of us have often had very little specificity behind them that holds up to scrutiny.

FOLKENFLIK: But John Harris, editor-in-chief of the Politico, says the campaign's attacks are intended to rally the faithful, not really debate the merits of the stories. For more than a generation, conservatives have argued the political press stacks the deck against them. And Harris says the McCain camp is stoking that fire once again.

Mr. JOHN HARRIS (Editor-in-Chief, Politico): I think most of us take it with a heavy dose of salt. I doubt even the people in the McCain campaign making those charges fully believe their own rhetoric or the implications of their rhetoric.

FOLKENFLIK: During the primaries, Barack Obama's aides tried to fight against coverage of the Democrat's relationship with his incendiary former pastor and a corrupt donor. But that was behind the scenes, and the 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.

Mr. HARRIS: You know, when George H.W. Bush was complaining about press coverage and imploring his supporters to annoy the media, I mean, that was in the middle of a losing campaign.

FOLKENFLIK: McCain's warm rapport with journalists has been so ingrained that his campaign's turnabout has surprised some former aides. Torie Clarke worked for him on Capitol Hill.

Ms. TORIE CLARKE (Former Press Secretary, Senator McCain): John McCain is a fellow who gained national prominence largely through his relationship with the media.

FOLKENFLIK: But that warmth has chilled. Aside from two network interviews, the formerly open campaign has largely kept reporters at bay from Governor Palin. When McCain and Palin met with the president of Georgia last week, McCain invited questions from reporters and photographers who were ushered in at the end, but aides weren't having it.

Unidentified Woman: Actually, there are no questions.

Unidentified Man #1: You said you were going to vote for the Paulson plan. Do you have (unintelligible) about that?

Senator MCCAIN: I did not say that.

Unidentified Woman: OK. Thanks, guys. Thanks very much.

FOLKENFLIK: In the wake of Palin's periodically halting responses to Couric, the campaign is prepping her for tomorrow's debate. McCain's shift to an antagonistic stance toward the media resembles past Republican tactics. In one example, Andrea Mitchell refuted a Republican claim that Obama refused to visit wounded veterans in Germany when he couldn't bring along television cameras. Mitchell came under fire.

Ms. ANDREA MITCHELL (Chief Foreign Affairs, Correspondent for NBC News): I just stood my ground, and it passed. It was a storm - a squall. Clearly, what's happening now with the New York Times is a bigger storm, and it's a bigger issue.

FOLKENFLIK: McCain veterans say his wariness toward the press is understandable. Dan Schnur was the communications director for McCain's primary bid in 2000.

Mr. DAN SCHNUR (Communication Director, 2000 McCain Presidential Campaign): You know, you remember the old song, "In a Town Without Pity?" Well, 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'll spend the rest of the week explaining yourself.

FOLKENFLIK: 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 to the media's right to be seen as a referee at all. That's a high-stakes game. David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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