Monday, July 21, 2008

McCain adultery story rocks political world — oh wait, no it doesn’t

The Los Angeles Times did some solid investigative reporting and published a very damaging item yesterday on John McCain’s personal background, which is of course a key part of his campaign. We learned that McCain turned his back on his wife after she was seriously injured in a car accident, committed adultery, and left the mother of his children when he found a younger, wealthier woman.

Worse, we also learned that McCain didn’t tell the truth about this in his own memoir. McCain insisted that he was separated from his first wife before he began dating his second wife. That’s not true. McCain also insisted he’d been divorced for months before remarrying. That wasn’t true, either. (In fact, the LAT reported, “McCain obtained an Arizona marriage license on March 6, 1980, while still legally married to his first wife.”)

Clearly, this is the kind of salacious story reporters just love. A presidential candidate, running on his personal background, is found to have a messy past. The story has sex, drama, and fairly obvious lies — everything a news outlet needs for wall-to-wall coverage. What does this tell us about McCain’s character? Will voters care about a conservative Republican’s adultery? What will the “family-values” crowd say? How do we reconcile McCain’s untruths with his alleged proclivity for “straight talk”? Will the revelations hurt McCain in the polls? It’s the kind of story the media can obsess over for months.

So, let’s take a moment to step back, and analyze the media frenzy we’ve seen over the last 24 hours, as the political world comes to grips with McCain’s controversial personal life and his willingness to be less than truthful about it:

(picture tumble weeds rolling by)

Nada. Mark Halperin quickly featured the LAT story yesterday morning, but removed it soon after. Campaign reporters didn’t ask McCain about it at all yesterday (ironically, McCain was emphasizing his concern for women yesterday, so it might have been apropos).

A couple of mid-size papers republished the LAT article, with an emphasis on McCain’s relationship with the Reagans. The networks didn’t touch the story. The major dailies ignored it altogether (the NYT’s Nicholas Kristof mentioned it on his blog, but there was nothing in the actual newspaper).

This may be an awkward subject for reporters — McCain did, after all, give them barbecue — but it is a legitimate news story.First, as far as the media was concerned when Bill Clinton was running for president, adultery counted as a character issue. Maybe reporters got burned out on the subject, but it creates a glaring double standard — a Democrat guilty of infidelity is a major news story; a Republican guilty of infidelity deserves a pass.

Second, even if news outlets decided McCain’s character issues are too old to deserve attention, there’s the issue of McCain’s memoir, which clearly includes stories about his marriages that aren’t true. Obama’s books were scrutinized in great detail, and news outlets highlighted minor inconsistencies. McCain, meanwhile, lied about cheating on his wife.

What constitutes major news lately? Wesley Clark, who has a tangential connection to Obama and supported his primary opponent, accurately questioned McCain’s presidential qualifications. Jesse Jackson, who hardly has any connection to Obama at all, whispers to a friend, off the record, about his dissatisfaction with Obama’s message to the African-American community. These were huge stories that generated excessive coverage.

McCain lies about the circumstances of his marriages? Nothing. No interest whatsoever.
I’d ask reporters to consider one simple question. If investigative reporters at the LA Times had discovered that Barack Obama had been divorced, cheated on his first wife, left her after she was injured in a car accident, pursued a younger woman while still married, and then lied about the circumstances of his marriages in his memoir, does anyone seriously believe that news outlets would blow off the story completely?

Or is it more likely we would never hear the end of this?

The next time someone suggests the media is covering the candidates even-handedly, keep this story in mind.

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