The New York Times Needs An Intervention

by Randy Shaw on August 18, 2008

As I have frequently reported, the New York Times news division has not exactly distinguished itself in covering the Obama-McCain race. Many of its stories seem lifted from the Republican playbook, as news editors apparently seek to compensate for the editorial board’s support for the Democrat. But on August 15, the Times ran a major story that was so inaccurate, and so counter to the prevailing media frame, that its reporter appeared to have become seriously detached from reality. In “McCain Displays Credentials as Obama Relaxes,” reporter Michael Falcone argued that while “Obama’s voice seems muted,” McCain handled the Russia-Georgia crisis with “fluency,” lending the Republican “an aura of commander in chief.” In other words, despite McCain’s overwhelmingly negative media coverage for his presumptuous attempt to speak as a president, his bellicosity, and his relying for advice on a Georgia lobbyist, the New York Times reported that the crisis was a boon to his candidacy.

With Barack Obama vacationing in Hawaii last week, John McCain had the media spotlight all to himself. He used this opportunity to stake out a belligerent stance toward Russia that lent credence to Pat Buchanan’s recent charge that “McCain will make Dick Cheney look like Ghandi.”

Because McCain had the media spotlight all to himself, news shows could not help but show the Republican nominee claiming that “we are all Georgians.” On MSNBC and other media outlets, this statement was quickly followed by reports that McCain’s top advisor on Georgia is a paid foreign agent for that government.

Strangely, the Times August 15 story makes no mention of the Georgia lobbyist on the McCain payroll. Instead, the paper withheld this critical fact from readers while touting McCain’s alleged “fluency” with which he discussed Georgia.

Nor did the Times report on McCain’s hypocritical comment on FOX News about the conflict on August 13 that “in the 21st Century, nations don’t invade other nations.” Such a quote is likely to haunt him down the road, as the Obama camp reminds voters that McCain has tied himself to the Bush Administration’s policy on Iraq.

“I Am In Control”

Much of the media noted how McCain acted like he were the president, an action which, if undertaken by Obama, would have had pundits blistering the Democrat for being “presumptuous.” But the Times was impressed with McCain’s acting like “a commander in chief,” and by dispatching Joe Lieberman and Lindsey Graham to the region “as if he already had a cabinet.”

In truth, in a point repeatedly made on MSNBC, CNN, and throughout the traditional media, McCain’s exaggerated response to the Russia-Georgia conflict likely scared more voters than it reassured. And his Alexander Haig-like “I am in control” appearance had to leave many thinking of a former Senate colleague’s statement that he would not want to see McCain anywhere near a nuclear trigger.

Also omitted from the August 15 Times praising of McCain was his bizarre statement insisting that Russia’s entry into Georgia was not simply about disputed territory on its border; rather, McCain argued Russia was putting democracies across the world at risk.

Not content with 100 years in Iraq, McCain now wants to U.S. taxpayers to fund a new cold war. And the Times reporter believes that advancing this notion will boost McCain’s campaign.

Exotic Hawaii

As I noted last week, Cokie Roberts of ABC News foolishly criticized Obama for vacationing in “foreign, exotic Hawaii” rather than a place like Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Roberts’ comments were spoofed for days, and even Hawaii Senator Daniel Akaka criticized her for seeming to forget that Hawaii is a state.

Despite all of the fun the media had at Roberts’ expense, the Times’ August 15 story returned to this silly story line and actually tried to convince readers that Obama should not have gone to visit the home of his grandmother, who can otherwise not travel. Reporter Falcone tried to juxtapose Obama’s “relaxing” with McCain’s rising to the occasion during a world crisis-ignoring the fact that George W. Bush is still President and that neither candidate has any authority to act on the nation’s behalf.

An intervention with qualified journalistic/mental health staff could start with news editors explaining why they were still touting a story line about exotic Hawaii that had become a national embarrassment and a fodder for stand-up comics. And the Times was not simply pushing this story; its reporter was focused on rehabilitating it, particularly to fit its framing of Obama as out of touch during a crisis.

(As many have pointed out, just imagine the media backlash had Obama sought to tell George Bush how the nation should respond to the Russia-Georgia crisis. The right-wing media machine would be talking about nothing else through Election Day, followed closely by CNN and other media desperate to turn a likely landslide for Obama into a horserace.)

In his Sunday, August 17 Times column criticizing media coverage of the contest, Frank Rich states that “while reporters at The Post and The New York Times have been vetting McCain, others give him a free pass. Rich should re-read his paper’s coverage, as he is likely to be surprised by “inaccurate” profile of McCain that the columnist attributes to other media.

I thought the Times news coverage of the 2004 presidential election was relatively good. But McCain has either succeeded in shaping the paper’s news coverage through attacking its editorials, or the paper figures it does not matter what it writes because its readers have made up their minds.

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