Thursday, March 06, 2008

McCain BBQ and Our Insipid Press Corps

Members of the press at the McCain BBQ. No, I'm not kidding.
(This picture comes from Meghan McCain's blog and is copyright Heather Brand. I'm claiming fair use -- sue me.)

This subject makes me positively apoplectic. Few events in recent memory illustrate so many poor qualities of our press corps like the BBQ Sen. McCain held over the weekend and the subsequent coverage of it. Our mainstream press is a cruel joke on all of us. There is so much wrong here it's nearly impossible to approach. But I'll try to break it down from different angles in a series of blog posts. There is no way one can cover it all.

It's Not News

There is absolutely nothing newsworthy about the McCain BBQ. (What is newsworthy is the press corps reaction to it) Every piece on it reads like pure public relations from the pen of McCain's own people.

Ribs, to be specific. He gets 'em at Costco -- the big slabs of pork ribs. And he slaps them on the grill at the lowest possible temperature. Any hotter, he says, and the meat cooks too fast.
His secret recipe is a dry-rub concoction that consists of one-third salt, one-third pepper and one-third garlic powder -- and he pours it on. But the real trick, he says, is the fresh lemon juice that he squeezes onto the ribs repeatedly. Keeps 'em juicy.

@#*$ING FASCINATING! I can hardly wait for the followup story on what he puts in the potato salad.

These are the actual headlines (with attached stories) describing this non-event:
At McCain's Ariz. Retreat, Ribs With a Side of Chi?
Chicken hawk: McCain meets grill
For McCain, a Different Kind of Grilling
Grillmaster McCain plays host in Sedona
McCain Shows Off His BBQ Skills
No news, just ribs at McCain barbecue
John McCain, grill master supreme
Back in Arizona, McCain Tends the Grill

Yes, CNN ran a story headlined "No News." But in case you didn't believe them, how about this transcript (emph. added) detailing the lack of newsworthiness?

It was definitely a news-free zone. There were no TV cameras there so we can't show you any pictures of it.
But you know, he made it very clear from the beginning. He wasn't interested in making any news. He wanted this to be a social gathering, a chance to thank the press for trudging along after him for the past however many months.
It was a lot of show and tell for the press corps. But a news-free zone, definitely. But it was very nice and very gracious, Candy.

Here's a thought: how about covering some actual news.

There is less actual news content in these reports than in an episode of Cribs. These puff pieces are something you might expect out of an MTV lifestyle show, but here they are in the Washington Post, CNN, Politico, The Boston Globe, et al. "McCain Shows Off His BBQ Skills." Oh really, CBS news?

There is an Obvious Conflict of Interest

The press is often referred to as McCain's "base." This is a clear illustration of why. One account:

The campaign booked the senator's aides and reporters into one of the only big hotels in town: the Enchantment Resort, a five-star hotel nestled so far back in the picturesque red rock canyons of Sedona that most in the group found that their cell phones were out of range. To cope with the stress of being incommunicado, people booked massages at the hotel spa and went on hikes, including one on which an instructor sought to help participants unblock their "inner chi."

A second account:

The idea, McCain said, was to allow reporters to get to know him and his staff under less stressful circumstances. (The fact that the press spent the weekend at a resort called Enchantment where many sipped wine and enjoyed lengthy deep-tissue massages probably contributed to that feeling.)

It looks like McCain paid for not only the food but for accomodations. But beyond that the real issue is that the people who are supposed to cover McCain the candidate are the same people cavorting with McCain the friendly BBQer. Does the term "professional distance" mean anything to our press corps? They are literally drinking and partying with the guy they are supposed to be reporting on.

Reading the various accounts it's clear the event was purely social, with only a thin pretense of seriousness to make it appear above-water. Reporters agreed to not videotape, photograph or record, they were discouraged from taking notes or asking political questions. The event was originally off-the-record entirely.

The goal from McCain's perspective was clear: try to present a likeable, human side in order to win friends and influence people. Here is TIME's Anna Marie Cox explaining:

I think of socializing as part of the larger project: I get to know people and then can then write about them with more depth, and it means that when I do write something critical about them, I take EXTRA care to get it right... I'm willing to lose a friend over something I write but I'd like to know it was worth it.

The whole point of the event was to help McCain turn reporters into friends, or at least friendlies, who then like Anna Marie Cox become less likely to write critically of him.

I started to write "it's not as simple as McCain grills someone a chicken sandwhich and in return they write a fawning piece about him" but that's exactly what happened: people wrote fawning stories based on McCain entertaining them. It's not that the food was literal payment for the following coverage but it did predictably result in multiple stories lauding McCain's softer side. Beyond the short term production of PR-style descriptions of the event itself is the long-term impact of cultivating friendly social relationships with press corps members.

From the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics:

Journalists should:
—Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.

The fact that this has to be explained at all is a terrible indictment of our press corps. If you want to fairly cover a candidate you don't go to parties at his house. This is not difficult.

Next Time

In part two I'll look at two more aspects of the BBQ coverage: journalist's insistence on (badly) covering the "character" of candidates and the embarrassing servility of the press corps.


carol said...

Great blog! It makes me feel like this country can't move forward when this cronyism seeps into the media. It's been there for too long now, but undercover with a pretense of unbiased journalism. That this is reported so blatantly and without shame, means that the press has lost it. We have to go to Matt Talibi from the Rolling Stone to get decent reporting about this political campaign (expletives included, unfortunately).

Anonymous said...

Chill out. It's not really a big deal that the press went to a BBQ and enjoyed themselves. I've worked as a reporter on a day-after-day never-ending beat. You have no idea how hard that job is and how much you really need to blow off a little cordial steam every once in a while. And injecting a little bit of that cordial spirit into coverage of these over-extended political campaigns might actually remind us from time to time that we're dealing with real people. It can even help provide some valuable perspective. It's not the end of the republic or even the collapse of the Fourth Estate. You may think the press is wasting its precious time at a BBQ. I'd say no more than you're wasting precious blog space criticizing them for it.

Anonymous said...

PS - I second the compliment to Matt Taibi. He does have more stones than most.

Margalis said...

Thanks for the kind words carol. I'm not familiar with Matt Talibi but I have seen some good reporting in Rolling Stone. In particular about military contractors in Iraq recently.

To anon, members of the press are saying in the open and without irony that they are members of the McCain team and therefore go easy on him. The BBQ broke the ethics rules of the WaPo, NYT and others. So yes, it is a big deal, in part because of how illustrative it is of press behavior in general.

Most people in the US have a low opinion of the press; things like this don't help. If you read the articles that allowed comments nearly all the comments are negative and raise the same basic points: it isn't news and is an obvious conflict of interest.

El Cid said...

Just imagine -- had it been a prominent Democrat attempting the same thing, just what fantastically withering sneers would come out of the press corps?

Whereas John McCain (Super-Maverick, AZ) authentically cooks all-American ribs from the all-American Costco in a manly, mavericky way that makes journalists fawn over how a presidential candidate as godly as McCain could possibly share so much humanity with them...

...a Democrat doing the exact same thing would be witheringly dismissed as trying to kiss up to the media, as even faking the common man's approach to barbecuing yet putting everyone up in fancy hotels in the New-Age-y capital of Sedona.

In short, each and everything McCain is praised for in this BBQ retreat coverage would be fodder for derision by any journalist covering a Democrat doing the exact same thing.

And then they would still raise the ethics questions.

cheflovesbeer said...

After reading this, I propose a term for the press that fails to critically cover McCain We should say the reporter "Ate the BBQ"