There are some signs that the press corps is beginning to notice that John McCain’s campaign has become increasingly about personally smearing Barack Obama, and not about convincing anyone that John McCain would be a good president. For example, Wednesday’s NY Times article about how even some Republicans think that McCain’s attacks on Obama may be going too far (of course, their concern is that the attacks will backfire, not that they are unfair to Obama, but still, the fact that they are nervous about the recent tone of McCain’s campaign is telling).
Better yet, though, is a front-page Washington Post article on Wednesday. The headline is, “McCain Charge Against Obama Lacks Evidence,” which is more definitive than most headlines you will see in the Post or the Times about a candidate’s false charges. The article, however, goes even further than the headline, practically asserting that the McCain campaign is inventing lies in order to tear down Obama. Here is the lede:
For four days, Sen. John McCain and his allies have accused Sen. Barack Obama of snubbing wounded soldiers by canceling a visit to a military hospital because he could not take reporters with him, despite no evidence that the charge is true.
The attacks are part of a newly aggressive McCain operation whose aim is to portray the Democratic presidential candidate as a craven politician more interested in his image than in ailing soldiers, a senior McCain adviser said. They come despite repeated pledges by the Republican that he will never question his rival’s patriotism.
The essence of McCain’s allegation is that Obama planned to take a media entourage, including television cameras, to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany during his week-long foreign trip, and that he canceled the visit when he learned he could not do so. “I know that, according to reports, that he wanted to bring media people and cameras and his campaign staffers,” McCain said Monday night on CNN’s “Larry King Live.”
The Obama campaign has denied that was the reason he called off the visit. In fact, there is no evidence that he planned to take anyone to the American hospital other than a military adviser, whose status as a campaign staff member sparked last-minute concern among Pentagon officials that the visit would be an improper political event.
“Absolutely, unequivocally wrong,” Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor said in an e-mail after McCain’s comments to Larry King.
Despite serious and repeated queries about the charge over several days, McCain and his allies continued yesterday to question Obama’s patriotism by focusing attention on the canceled hospital visit.
That’s pretty good, but as the article goes on, the Post reporters become even clearer in stating that McCain’s campaign is simply not telling the truth. This is a bit further down in the article:
McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds said again yesterday that the Republican’s version of events is correct, and that Obama canceled the visit because he was not allowed to take reporters and cameras into the hospital.
“It is safe to say that, according to press reports, Barack Obama avoided, skipped, canceled the visit because of those reasons,” he said. “We’re not making a leap here.”
Asked repeatedly for the “reports,” Bounds provided three examples, none of which alleged that Obama had wanted to take members of the media to the hospital.
The McCain campaign has produced a television commercial that says that while in Germany, Obama “made time to go to the gym but canceled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn’t allow him to bring cameras.” The commercial shows Obama shooting a basketball — an event that happened earlier in the trip on a stopover in Kuwait, where the Democrat spoke to troops in a gym before grabbing a ball and taking a single shot. The military released the video footage.
A reconstruction of the circumstances surrounding Obama’s decision not to visit Landstuhl, based on firsthand reporting from the trip, shows that his campaign never contemplated taking the media with him.
The article exhaustively details the unfolding of this manufactured pseudo-scandal, and importantly, the reporters note that the Obama campaign did not give contradictory explanations of why the visit was cancelled, contrary to what has become conventional wisdom in the press reports. The campaign did give a series of explanations (probably not realizing early on that this would be blown out of proportion like this), but none of them were inconsistent with the others, and the later explanations were elaborations of the earlier explanations, not corrections of them. And obviously none of the explanations had anything to do with bringing cameras with him. (Indeed, just a few days before the trip to Germany, the press had been complaining about not being allowed to accompany Obama when he visited with troops.)
Significantly, the Post reporters give an Obama spokesman the last word:
Gibbs was asked yesterday about the continuing allegations from McCain that the real reason was a desire to bring a media entourage to the hospital.
“That’s completely untrue, and I think, honestly, they know it’s untrue,” Gibbs said.
While the reporters are scrupulously objective, they also refrained from using the wishy-washy, mealy-mouthed locutions that are so typical of “neutral” campaign coverage. Instead, they played it straight and declared that “A reconstruction of the circumstances surrounding Obama’s decision not to visit Landstuhl…shows that his campaign never contemplated taking the media with him.” Bravo to Michael D. Shear, Dan Balz, and Juliet Eilperin of the Post.
Obviously, most voters don’t read the Washington Post. TV news people, however, do read the Post, and since they do little thinking or reporting for themselves, they rely on reporters at the Post and the Times to guide them through the twists and turns of the campaign. So a front-page article in the Post can have a real impact on the way the network and cable news covers a story, which in turn has a big impact on how local news programs will cover a story.
And even if the damage from this particular smear has already been done, John McCain may be in trouble if his reputation among the press corps is changing from that of a lovable, straight-talking maverick to a man who makes up lies about his opponent, then repeats them ad nauseam even after they are shown to be false. So kudos to the Post for telling the truth without resorting to he said/she said pseudo-objectivity. Let’s hope this is not an isolated event.