Because John McCain Does Not Exist
The conventional wisdom is that John McCain has fooled the press into loving him more than they should.
Meanwhile, Yaz notices that David Brooks is moving on, and speculates it may be because Brooks knew McCain was going to resist Trump on repeal and replace:
I'd like to think David Brooks knew in advance how McCain was going to go, because today's column ("Jeff Flake Plants a Flag") seems very precisely designed to diminish the achievement and detach the question of senatorial honorability and anti-Trump resistance from the question of the health care bill by pointing at McCain's Arizona colleague, Senator Flake, who of course voted for it:Some senators are passing the test of conscience — Ben Sasse, Lindsey Graham, Susan Collins, Mike Lee and John McCain. And to that list we can certainly add Arizona Senator Jeff Flake. In a few days he comes out with a book called “Conscience of a Conservative,” which is a thoughtful defense of traditional conservatism and a thorough assault on the way Donald Trump is betraying it.
But I think that Brooks's move to praise Flake has nothing to do with McCain's vote and everything to do with McCain's impending death. Brooks extremely obvious pivot from McCain to Flake does a service here by revealing what's under the hood motivating the media. The Post War Objective Media has stories to tell, those stories need heroes, and when McCain passes, the media will need a new Republican protagonist.
Meanwhile, another new character, a villain, "The Mooch" came on the scene last week with a profanity laced rant, on the record, to the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza. The reaction by other journalists reveals another aspect of how the media operates. Chris Hayes, well meaning and erudite, marveled at Lizza's "great quotes":
Josh Marshall grumbled, with fitting Scaramoochi vocabulary, that Lizza's piece superseded his annotations of an earlier on-camera Scaramoochi performance:
In the shocking instant of reading the line "I'm not trying to suck my own cock," Hayes and Marshall are refreshingly honest: The job of a journalist is to tell good stories full of juicy quotes.
Back in the days of Yellow Journalism, the job was the same, but you could be honest about it, all the time. Good stories that sold newspapers were the whole point when Pulitzer and Hearst engaged in desperate competition for working class eyeballs. The fight for circulation numbers was the animating spirit behind the muckrakers and the media environment behind the Progressive Era and New Deal.
But after WWII, mid-Century news monopolies meant that journalists could abandon the drive for circulation. In each region, network effects and classified ads meant the newspaper that everyone read was the one you had to read, too. Meanwhile, television networks were happy to throw money at news as a counter argument to the genuine possibility that TV was indeed a "vast wasteland." Fifteen white guys controlled the whole operation. They could print anything they wanted, as long as it didn't offend the advertisers. They had a problem: what's the point? Why wake up in the morning?
The answer: to protect democracy! Pulitzer and Hearst had supported the Progressive Era and New Deal by happy accident in pursuit of money. The new media would protect democracy on purpose. To do that it needed rules. Those rules are now enshrined as the ethics of "good professional journalism."
Sure, tell stories, but with a hand tied behind your back. An unofficial Reporters Guild strictly enforces the rules you must follow if you wish to remain a Guild-member in good standing. And if you lose that standing, you will be excommunicated, even for trivial nonsense. The Guild is a bit of a fiction maybe. But the membership rules are real, published, and annotated. For example here, and here.
Fairness and Impartiality
Most stories have at least two sides. While there is no obligation to present every side in every piece, stories should be balanced and add context. Objectivity is not always possible, and may not always be desirable (in the face for example of brutality or inhumanity), but impartial reporting builds trust and confidence.
Back in the day when the rules of good journalism were drafted, it was actually pretty easy to find a nice balance of heroes. Yes, most of the real heroes--people like Martin Luther King Jr., Father Berrigan, and Sargent Shriver, for example--were more or less aligned with the Democratic Party. But there were enough on the GOP side to populate an even number of stories. The United States Senate, for example, contained 27 Republican heroes in 1964: 26 men and one woman who voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Those heroes included leaders like Dirksen, liberals like Cooper, and a genuine Maverick from the West named Kutchel.
Republican of Illinois, Dirksen was Senate Minority leader, where his legislative prowess was central to providing enough GOP votes to join Northern Democrats in passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act over the objection of Southern Democrats and many Republicans. Fundamentalist Christianity wasn't opposed to Black People back then, as Dirksen was also behind an attempt to amend the Constitution to allow prayer in public schools.
From a very old aristocratic family in Kentucky who arrived shortly after pioneer Daniel Boone blazed the trail, Copper would not have enjoyed the Neo-Confederate politics of 21st Century Kentucky. The middle name "Sherman" was after the Union General William Tecumseh. He fought in World War II and started the Post War legal system in Bavaria, but went on to oppose LBJ's expansion of the Vietnam War.
Part of Dirksen's leadership team in the Senate, Kutchel was a California Republican who wasn't a big fan of more famous Californians Nixon and Reagan. In 1962, he refused to endorse Richard Nixon when tricky Dick ran (unsuccessfully) to unseat Pat Brown (Jerry's dad) as Governor. Four years later, he was even less enamored with rising GOP star Ronald Reagan:
During the 1966 California gubernatorial primary, Thomas Kuchel was urged by moderates to run against conservative actor Ronald Reagan. Citing the hostilities of the growing conservative movement, Kuchel decided not to run. He instead issued a statement citing that the conservatives were, "A fanatical neo-fascist political cult of right-wingers in the GOP, driven by a strange mixture of corrosive hatred and sickening fear that is recklessly determined to control our party or destroy it!"
Ten years after the Civil Rights Act, only 10 of the 27 Republicans who voted for the Civil Rights Act were still in the Senate. Sixteen years after the passage of the law came Ronald Reagan's landslide victory where he swept the old "Solid South." Reagan's Inauguration on January 20th, 1981, is a critical date in Republican Party history as Reagan entered stage Right.
But note as well the date January 3rd, 1981, which marked the opening of the 97th Congress. One of the Democrats who opposed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Strom Thurmond, was now the Republican President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Exiting stage Left was Jacob Javits, Republican of New York. On the morning of January 3rd, Javits was the only Republican left in the Senate who had voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. A Jew from the Lower East Side, Javits became a Republican in response to Tammany Hall corruption and in support of Progressive Republican Fiorello H. LaGuardia. On January 3rd, 1981, he was replaced in the Senate by Al D'Amato.
Who's the hero now?
So how do you tell a good story when all the protagonists from one side are gone? When men like Ted Kennedy and Paul Wellstone--Camelot and the common touch--stand out on the Democratic side, who is the hero that provides the balance needed for "good journalism"?
Enter John McCain.
"Si Dieu n'existait pas, il faudrait l'inventer."
Translation: If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.
John McCain endured torture in Vietnam as a POW and is therefore a war hero.
The Invention of John McCain
The rest of his military record is not so great. Early in his Senate career, he was involved in a seriously crooked scheme with a savings and loan that was worse than anything either Clinton has ever been accused of (Id.). He turned the tables on that, and developed an anti-corruption reputation by teaming up with Russ Feingold to severely limit "soft money" donations in a widely hailed campaign finance reform act. Prior to McCain-Feingold, donors were limited in the "hard money" they could give to individual candidates, but they could give unlimited amounts of "soft money" to party organizations. In the modern system where primaries--not parties--pick the candidates, soft money was a key lever that allowed parties some amount of control. Candidates had to toe the party line or give up access to the unlimited funds of soft money. Ending soft money has been a disaster for democracy, paving the way for non-party actors like the Koch brothers and non-party candidates like Trump.
McCain became know as a fighter against "pork barrel" spending, thanks in part to a gimmick where he found important federal spending that had a funny name and ridiculed it as an attack on government waste. That routine, enacted again and again over decades, is part of what fueled anti-government attitudes in the Tea Party and led to sequestration, half of which is the blind slicing of military spending that McCain has spent the last years of his career trying to undo.
But the man gives great quotes. Here's Warren Rudman discussing the 2000 primary campaign on the PBS News Hour:
WARREN RUDMAN: Of course it’s true. They’ve not gone easy, but if you want to use the word slobber, I’ll take slobber. But let me tell you why. You covered it in your opening. I’ve traveled on that bus. Several of the people here have traveled on that bus. It’s remarkable — unprecedented access — not mealy-mouthed campaign bite answers. Ask a question, get an answer. But most of all, the press has watched him at 114 town meetings in New Hampshire answer every question and they’ve respected this guy and they like him.
There's no great mystery. The press loves John McCain because he helps them do their job. Because of the rules, there must be balance. If a man like John McCain didn't exist, the press would have been forced to invent them. Or, more accurately, because he didn't exist, the press did, in fact, invent John McCain.
But he's dying of brain cancer. Who will replace him? Jeff Flake? Ben Sasse? Or will news outlets like the New York Times finally sell me a newspaper I want to read? One that doesn't feel the need to find protagonists on the Republican side.