Roger’s Rules

Grasping at Straws: The NY Times on McCain

This is getting embarrassing. Remember the front-page story The New York Times ran about John McCain’s non-affair with a lobbyist? That was the long-held piece of non-news that the Times subtly dropped like a barbell at midnight shortly after it became clear that McCain would be the Republican nominee for President. The point of the piece was to knock Mr. McCain off his high horse and tarnish his reputation. But the effect was to further diminish the Times in the eyes of its readers. If such mean-spirited and slightly hysterical rumor-mongering is news, who needs it?

Well, they never learn. At least, that’s what I conclude from today’s non-story about Mr. McCain’s use of a corporate jet owned by a company run by his wife. “McCain Frequently Used Wife’s Jet for Little Cost” screams the headline.

“Yeah, so?” you might be asking, and you would be right. 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.

Update: A reader adds two additional observations:

[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.