For all the clumsiness of the McCain press folks over the past 30 hours since The New York Times published their story about their candidate’s ties to a lobbyist, they scored at least one direct hit—a talking point that has appealed to and happily been dispersed by the self-involved press.
But first, the idiocy!
"It is a shame that The New York Times has lowered its standards to engage in a hit-and-run smear campaign," began the McCain folks’ original statement. It’s just intolerable to listen to someone suggest that a "hit and run"—a "brief attack followed by a quick escape"—is also a "campaign"—a multi-pronged or ongoing assault or project.
It’s a fantasy anyway.
Here they are clearly just scrabbling for sticky, Limbaugh-esque phrases that appeal to America’s misplaced hatred of newspapers—a hatred made and fed by politicians and campaigns at their great convenience.
Who benefits if working, voting people distrust and despise the reporting press (as opposed to the opinion press in blogland and on talk radio)? Politicians and corporations do—it’s easier then to decry the coverage of politicians and corporations.
Fine, the Times story was a sprawling mess, undoubtedly the result of nervous overediting. But it’s not clear that anything in the piece is actually untrue.
It’s also, at best, incurably stupid to suggest that a reputable newspaper—for all of that particular newspaper’s many, many, many failings and human mistakes—is engaged in "gutter politics" or a "smear campaign" or whatever falsely outraged claim they’ve made latest.
Thing is: people should understand that if it’s a "smear," then McCain will see them in court. If they’re not pressing charges, they’re just blowing hot air. (These people are millionaires—they can afford to sue.)
But the McCain camp has also done itself right.
Their most successful talking point appealed to the grandiosity of reporters. "They did this because the The New Republic was going to run a story that looked back at the infighting there" is what McCain’s guy Mark Salter told reporters in a garage in Toledo.
"Nothing forced our hand. Nothing pushed us to move faster other than our own natural desire that we wanted to get a story in the paper that met all of our standards" is what The Times‘ Dean Baquet said.
(Interestingly, both Baquet’s comments and Times executive editor Bill Keller’s comments today recall Keller’s statement back in December 2005 on the year-plus delay in publishing James Risen’s stories on the NSA at The Times. Sometimes, big newspaper stories aren’t published immediately! Sometimes, as in both these cases, the editors send them back for more work.)
Now we have, among others versions of this, Timothy Noah explaining in Slate: "How two publications spooked each other into running weak stories." You see, The Times "purportedly rushed its story into print." (Purportedly, as in, purported by the McCain outfit.) Noah goes on to explain that they shouldn’t have been afraid of TNR, because their story was rushed into print because The Times was rushing to print.
So many pieces suffering from being rushed into print!
And it, like the original Times piece, has no corrections attached to it.
This idea that media reporters somehow pushed The Times into publishing a story is ludicrous—and it’s dangerous that the media are so quick to integrate a campaign’s imaginary talking points. After all, would all those Times people who so obviously talked to Gabe Sherman have talked to him if he was a threat? Why would they have?