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Roger’s Rules

Any guess what Steve Schmidt, the chief strategist of John McCain’s campaign, is talking about? It could be any of the major TV networks. It could be National Public Radio. It could be The Washington Post. But as it happens, it is The New York Times–the “venerable New York Times,” as a story on Breibart.com put it.

His fuller comment tells the story more completely. The Times, Mr. Schmidt said,

“is a pro-Obama advocacy organization that every day attacks the McCain campaign, attacks Senator McCain, attacks Governor Palin, and excuses Senator Obama.”

“This is an organization that is completely, totally, 150 percent in the tank for the Democratic candidate, which is their prerogative to be, but let’s not be dishonest and call it something other than what it is.”

“It is an organization that has made a decision to cast aside its journalistic integrity and tradition to advocate for the defeat of one candidate — in this case, John McCain.”

Was this a partisan comment? Of course it was, in the sense that it was made by someone who is working for, and looking out for the interests of, a political candidate. Was it also dead right, spot on, searingly accurate? You betcha.

It’s not just that the Times is “anti-McCain,” cheerfully willing to run front-page stories on his non-affair with a former publicist or refusing to publish an op-ed by the candidate responding to one by Barack Hussein Obama. It is also that it is patently, indeed embarrassingly, smitten by Obama–so smitten that its pieces on either candidate are indistinguishable from press releases disseminated by Obama campaign headquarters.

Way back in April, when the Times published another non-story–this one about Mr. McCain’s completely legitimate use of a corporate jet owned by a company run by his wife–I offered this anatomy of a typical Times non-story about a candidate it doesn’t like:

Here’s how the Times structures its non-stories about John McCain:

  1. Prissy introductory sentence or two noting that Mr. McCain has a reputation [read “unearned reputation”] for taking the ethical high road on issues like campaign finance reform.

2. “The-Times-has-learned” sentence intimating some tort or misbehavior.

3. A paragraph or two of exposition that simultaneously reveals that a) Mr. McCain actually didn’t do anything wrong but b) he would have if only the law had been different and besides everyone knows he is guilty in spirit.

It’s really easy once you get the hang of it. Here’s how it looks in practice:

1. The Setup: “Given Senator John McCain’s signature stance on campaign finance reform, it was not surprising that he backed legislation last year requiring presidential candidates to pay the actual cost of flying on corporate jets. The law, which requires campaigns to pay charter rates when using such jets rather than cheaper first-class fares, was intended to reduce the influence of lobbyists and create a level financial playing field.”

The “Times-Touch” © here is in the opposition of Mr. McCain’s “signature stance” campaign finance reform and the ominous but as-yet-unstated malfeasance: Mr. McCain claims to be a reformer, but really . . . . The suggestion of hypocrisy is all the more potent for being left in the realm of innuendo.

2. The Execution: “But over a seven-month period beginning last summer, Mr. McCain’s cash-short campaign gave itself an advantage by using a corporate jet owned by a company headed by his wife, Cindy McCain, according to public records. For five of those months, the plane was used almost exclusively for campaign-related purposes, those records show.”

Oh dear. That’s bad, right? I mean, using your wife’s jet doesn’t sound too bad, really. Perfectly normal, in fact. Convenient that she has a spare jet he could use. But it must somehow be against the law, right? Otherwise it wouldn’t be news, would it? And if it wasn’t news, it wouldn’t be worth reporting. Right?

If you believe that, you don’t know the Times. Pay attention now:

3. The Obfuscation: Part one: “The senator was able to fly so inexpensively because the law specifically exempts aircraft owned by a candidate or his family or by a privately held company they control.”

Oh. Case closed, what? Not quite:

Part two: “The Federal Election Commission adopted rules in December to close the loophole — rules that would have required substantial payments by candidates using family-owned planes — but the agency soon lost the requisite number of commissioners needed to complete the rule making.

Because that exemption remains, Mr. McCain’s campaign was able to use his wife’s corporate plane like a charter jet while paying first-class rates, several campaign finance experts said. Several of those experts, however, added that his campaign’s actions, while keeping with the letter of law, did not reflect its spirit.”

Let’s summarize. McCain used his wife’s company’s jet. It was perfectly legal for him to do so. But some people the Times reporter talked to think it shouldn’t be legal. Therefore . . .

“Therefore” what? Therefore you run another several hundred words telling readers how many flights the plane made over a 7-month period, how much it costs per hour to fly the plane, what the F.E.C. rules are for “deadhead” flights, likely tax-consequences for Mrs. McCain’s company, ending with an all purpose disclaimer: “The Times analysis may be inexact for a variety of reasons.” Why? “For one, the Times suffers from crippling ideological bias that requires it to publish stories that are nothing more than a tissue of groundless insinuation and thinly veiled editorializing designed to discredit a candidate we don’t like but against whom we have no dirt, though we are digging as fast as we can . . .” Oops, wrong sentence: the reason the Times actually gave for its possible inexactness was “flight records do not show how many, if any, campaign travelers were aboard a plane on a given flight.” Good to know.

A reader wrote in to add this illuminating supplement:

  “[R]egarding the non-violation of FEC rules: the article itself states that the FEC didn’t even begin not-adopting this new non-rule until December – and the travel in question took place from August through February. Not in any conceivable universe would McCain ever to have been held to have violated in August a rule that didn’t exist before December. And presumably if the FEC had had enough members to pass this rule in December, the McCain campaign would have then stopped doing whatever it is that the Times is so indignant about.”

“And WHY does the commission not have enough members to conduct business as usual? The Times is unusually reticent on that point. That’s because the reason the FEC doesn’t have enough members is that Barack Obama has blocked President Bush’s nominee from being confirmed.”

Of course, in the months since I wrote this, McCain’s candidacy has rocketed from moribund irrelevance to electrifying pertinence. It’s been clear to me since summer that, barring some extraordinary scandal, McCain was going to win, and win handsomely, but if I had any doubts they were dispelled by Obama’s politics-as-usual choice of Joe “Mr. Gaffe” Biden (see my post “The Neophyte and the Plagiarist“) as a running mate. And any shadow of an adumbration of a doubt was utterly exploded by McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate–a decision that was easily the most attention-grabbing act by either candidate of the entire campaign. Obama says his nomination marks the moment when the oceans stop rising and the planet began to heal itself, thus providing future satirists with their Dukais moment–McCain picks a running mate who totally galvanizes his supporters and reduces his opponent’s supporters to a state of blithering, often obscene, idiocy.

I am not in the habit offering offering advice to political candidates, but back in July I offered this tactic for the consideration of conservative candidates (It is good advice for conservatives in general, whether or not they are running for office):

Ignore The New York Times. More and more of your constituents are doing so, why shouldn’t you? Join the many happy folks who have Kicked the Times: Don’t read it, don’t refer to it, don’t regard it as an authority on anything. You’ll feel cleaner and your blood pressure will thank you. Above all, do not write, and do not allow your staff to write, op-eds for the Times. On the off chance that the paper actually publishes your piece, you will only help to bolster its sense of smug self-righteousness and perpetuate the illusion that the paper treats the candidates, or the issues, even-handedly. They don’t, and you shouldn’t collude in fostering the destructive myth that they do

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