Media's praise for McCain is warranted — but where was it in '08?

Media's praise for McCain is warranted — but where was it in '08?
© Getty Images

 Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump hits McCain on ObamaCare vote GOP, White House start playing midterm blame game Arizona race becomes Senate GOP’s ‘firewall’ MORE's passing last weekend has dominated the news, particularly cable news, over the past week. The life of the former prisoner of war and 2008 presidential candidate is certainly worthy of attention. 

But the respect and honesty we're seeing from the 2018 media is a far cry from the Arizona Republican's treatment in 2008. McCain was labeled as a racist, a get-off-my-lawn grouch with a divisive temper, someone whose health should be scrutinized because of his age. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Here's a flashback, courtesy of Pew Research, from the final weeks of the 2008 campaign in terms of the kind of media coverage the Republican presidential nominee received in his race against then-Sen. Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump questions Kavanaugh accuser's account | Accuser may testify Thursday | Midterm blame game begins Dems look to Gillum, Abrams for pathway to victory in tough states Ford taps Obama, Clinton alum to navigate Senate hearing MORE. Just 14 percent of coverage of McCain was positive from the Republican National Convention that ended on Sept. 4 through the final presidential debate on Oct. 15; 57 percent was negative. Translation: McCain's coverage was negative over positive by a 4-to-1 ratio. 

Compare that to coverage of Obama, who received 36 percent of coverage that was positive, and 35 percent that was neutral or mixed, according to the study. Just 29 percent of coverage was negative — about half that of McCain's.  

Politico, which was part of the Pew study, did an analysis of its own coverage for one week, Oct. 21 to 28: "Why McCain is getting hosed in the press." The result: "110 stories advanced a narrative that was more favorable to Obama than McCain. Sixty-nine did the opposite."  

When unpacking those numbers, remember this: McCain was a media darling for most of his career leading up to 2008. That isn't meant in a derogatory way. He was more accessible than most politicians of his experience and stature. He provided good soundbites, spoke with candor, wasn't afraid to go against the grain — hence his nickname, "Maverick."

In fact, McCain holds the record — and it's of Cal Ripken proportions — of having the most appearances on the CBS Sunday morning affairs program, "Face the Nation," with 112 appearances. He appeared 73 times on "Meet the Press," also a record. 

“You could always find him,” Bob Schieffer, the veteran CBS reporter, anchor and former host of "Face the Nation," told the Washington Post this week. “Most politicians, when the news is good, you have no trouble finding them. When it’s bad, you can’t find them with a bloodhound. McCain was always around and always willing to come on and talk. And he always had something to say.”  

McCain, of course, knew this. He didn't resort to the kind of rhetoric the current president uses with the media on a daily basis, opting instead for a different approach. 

"My old friend and green room pal, Chris Matthews, used to like me but he found somebody new," McCain said of the MSNBC host in October 2008 at the Al Smith Dinner in New York. "Somebody who opened his eyes, somebody who gave him a thrill up his leg. And we've talked about it. I told him, 'Maverick I can do, but Messiah is above my pay grade.' "

"You know, I have fun with the media. We all know the press is really an independent, civic-minded, and nonpartisan group," he also said to applause. 

But there had to be times when McCain rightly seethed at the kind of treatment he receives in the press. 

In August 2008, the New York Times editorial page described an official McCain ad as "racially tinged" because it included a photo of Obama juxtaposed with Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. 

The message the campaign was sending: Obama, with little experience and media adulation, was much more sizzle than steak, a paparazzi-obsessed celebrity.  

No matter: Ezra Klein said the McCain campaign was "running crypto-racist ads." Bill Press called it "deliberately and deceptively racist." John Marshall argued that “the McCain campaign is now pushing the caricature of Obama as a uppity young black man whose presumptuousness is displayed not only in taking on airs above his station but also in a taste for young white women." Don Lemon accused the campaign of "creating a political environment that is inciting hate and hate speech." 

Fast forward to this week, and it’s impossible to separate President TrumpDonald John TrumpSunday shows preview: Trump sells U.N. reorganizing and Kavanaugh allegations dominate Ex-Trump staffer out at CNN amid “false and defamatory accusations” Democrats opposed to Pelosi lack challenger to topple her MORE from the McCain conversation in terms of coverage. 

McCain deserves the praise. He deserves a big sendoff. But it's difficult not to ask this question: If the senator had gotten along with Trump, perhaps voted for the "skinny repeal" of ObamaCare that he so famously shot down with one vote change at the 11th hour, hadn't publicly called Trump "disgraceful," would we see this level of reverence we've witnessed and will continue to witness this weekend? 

John McCain is a true American hero. A politician representing a time before compromise and civility was considered by some as weakness in the swamps of D.C. 

For many in the media, if the numbers above are any indication, McCain became the villain the moment he clinched the 2008 Republican nomination not because of who he was but because his opponent was the overwhelming favorite of the press. 

The public — particularly Republicans, conservatives and Trump supporters — don't trust political media for a variety of reasons: bias, activism, smugness. 

Add phoniness to the list as well. 

Joe Concha (@JoeConchaTV) is a media reporter for The Hill and host of "What America's Thinking."