“I am writing in frustration over the tenor of the general coverage on McCain this past week,” Douglas Holtz-Eakin, top economic adviser to the Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain, wrote in a blast e-mail to financial reporters over the weekend.
One could be forgiven for thinking he was talking about the events of Tuesday, Sept. 16, when he was briefing reporters in Miami on his candidate’s prescriptions for solving the Wall Street crisis, and burnishing his candidate’s credentials as former chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee.
What, one reporter asked, had he done on commerce that gave him expertise on the present financial meltdown?
“He didn’t have jurisdiction over financial markets, first and foremost,’’ Mr. Holtz-Eakin said. But, holding up a handheld device that seemed like a BlackBerry or a close cousin, he said: “He did this.”
“You’re looking at the miracle that John McCain helped create. And that’s what he did.’’
Later, a McCain staffer called the claim a “bone-headed joke,” and fairly quickly, the gaffe became the news. Some variation of “Move Over Al Gore: McCain Created the BlackBerry!” circulated quickly, and somehow the several-points-long financial plan from Mr. McCain fell out of the picture.
But, at least explicitly, that’s not what made him angry.
“I will not get into a debate over the ‘tone’ of his remarks,” his e-mail continued, “but I cannot believe the absence of recognition of the policy substance.”
Immediately following was a series of bullet points restating Mr. Holtz-Eakin’s Miami presentation, which ranged from the establishment of a “mechanism for the orderly resolution of troubled financial entities,” to the streamlining of regulatory financial oversight to the creation of a “commission of technicians” that could help to alleviate the crisis at hand.
“In contrast, Obama has been an intellectual spectator and missing in action,” concluded Mr. Holtz-Eakin. “Why are the [sic] treated as the same?”
Steven Pearlstein of The Washington Post, who received the memo, chose to see the complaint as some potentially useful feedback from a campaign he did not regularly correspond with.
“I dish it out pretty good,” Mr. Pearlstein told The Observer by e-mail, “so I should be able to receive in the same spirit.”
But it did raise the question: What did the McCain campaign expect?
“It’s a great idea perhaps six months ago, and maybe six months from now,” said Steve Liesman, a senior economics reporter for CNBC and a recipient of the weekend e-mail. “But right now? The solution to next month’s problem or even how he would handle the next crisis is simply not germane to the incredibly pregnant moment that we’re in right now.”
Few in the world of financial reporting found much to say about either Mr. McCain or Senator Barack Obama’s responses to the unfolding crisis that week. After all, should business reporters really care more about Mr. McCain’s “commission of technicians” than, say, Henry Paulson’s plans for the largest bailout in American history or, say, the sudden, radical end of the pure investment banks on Wall Street?
The day after receiving the e-mail, during an appearance on Meet the Press, Mr. Liesman suggested that, if anything, Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama should be getting less attention from reporters. “I think both of these campaigns are beside themselves with how—behind the scenes—how unimportant they are,” said Mr. Liesman. “I got an angry note from one of McCain’s people saying, ‘McCain came out with this plan on Friday to solve the problem. …’ Like, who cares? What I care about right now is what’s going on behind closed doors across town here at Capitol Hill.”
Apparently, Mr. Liesman was not alone. During the week of Sept. 15-21, overall coverage of the economic crisis actually surpassed coverage of the presidential race across a broad swath of American media, according to a weekly tracking study by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. It was only the second time all year that something had displaced the election as the week’s top story (the Russia-Georgia conflict was the top story the week of August 11-17).