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The McCain-Media Chemistry

Journalism: Coverage of the Arizona senator's presidential bid has been criticized as uncritical. Others see it as reporters chasing a good story.


NEW YORK — He was unfaithful to his first wife, got his hands dirty in a major bank scandal and has an ugly temper. To be sure, Arizona Sen. John McCain is also a war hero, a powerful symbol of human courage under stress, but in what has become a familiar journalistic refrain, Newsweek wrote that "even his failures just seem to deepen the character lines."

It's hard to imagine Gov. George W. Bush, Vice President Al Gore or other candidates getting such fawning treatment from a national magazine, yet ever since he declared his candidacy for the GOP presidential nomination, McCain has led a charmed life with the media. Notoriously jaundiced reporters have waxed euphoric over his stance on campaign reform and celebrated his character, calling him a "maverick" who might shake up Washington.

Where Bush dominated press coverage for much of 1999, McCain's primary victories last month capped a period of favorable--and sometimes just plain gushing--coverage of his campaign, according to a recent analysis of Campaign 2000 television news stories. And this, in turn, has fueled McCain's dramatic rise in a GOP contest that is heading for a showdown in Tuesday's primaries.

"There's been a discernible bias for McCain in much of the recent news coverage, and it's a phenomenon reminiscent of John Kennedy in 1960 and Bill Clinton in the early part of the 1992 race," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist who studies media and campaigns. "What's unusual is that McCain is a conservative Republican, and the press is so often accused of a liberal bias. This has been myth-making on the highest level."

It's also prompted a backlash, uniting many critics on the left and right who think the love affair with McCain is farcical, if not dangerous. "The press have turned this guy into some kind of moderate to liberal hero, and that's because no one has really bothered to report his record," says Jeff Cohen, founder of the progressive group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting. Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh, the conservative talk show host, fumes that McCain and his allies in the media have "hijacked" the Republican contest, conspiring to poison the well against Bush in the event he goes on to win the GOP nomination.

For many election observers, the coverage of McCain is neither a joke nor a conspiracy. It is a vivid case study of how political journalism operates in an age of all-news cable TV shows--a crucial lifeline for charismatic but initially underfunded candidates like McCain--and an illustration of perhaps the oldest law of media physics: Journalists will always be attracted to a tough scrap and a good story.

Earlier in the race, many were attracted to McCain and his gritty life story for "symbolic" purposes, because it appeared his campaign wasn't going anywhere, says Jay Rosen, a New York University professor of media studies. "But when he won the New Hampshire primary, it produced a boom in the press, and he was suddenly all over these cable television talk shows."

Last week, when McCain attacked the Christian right in a much-heralded Virginia speech, Boston Globe columnist David Nyhan wrote that the candidate had "carved out a slot in our nation's political history," adding: "The old fighter pilot put the stick over, throttled to the redline, and screamed in low over the conservative heartland, firing off rockets, bullets, bombs, the works. He was never the kind of naval aviator to return to his carrier with unused ordnance."

Some critics also suggest that the attention focused on McCain hurt the Democratic bid of former Sen. Bill Bradley, who had increasing troubles drawing sustained coverage, for a variety of reasons. Moreover, there is a delicious irony in McCain's rise: The candidate who crusaded against unchecked campaign contributions managed to blunt Bush's fund-raising edge by adroitly using "free media" to maximum effect.

All of this, however, sparks questions: Have reporters fallen victim to "McSwoon," the term some use to describe the coverage? To what extent does unfettered access to a candidate shape news coverage? How deeply has the media probed McCain, who is seen by some Arizona journalists as a hot-tempered and manipulative politician, notorious for poor media relations?

In fairness, McCain has experienced his share of media turbulence. Press reports have probed alleged links between his stand on telecommunications issues and contributions from industry leaders; he was forced to retract comments that he knew nothing about negative ads attacking Bush in the Michigan primary. But for the most part, these black marks have faded from view.

"Out here, many of us are laughing at this incredibly positive view of McCain that has filtered into the national media," says Amy Silverman, a reporter for the Phoenix New Times who has covered McCain extensively.

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