When Torture is Old News


Upon being confronted with The New York Times’ "bombshell" report of his too-cozy relationship with a "lady lobbyist" during his last presidential campaign, GOP contender John McCain took a page from the Bush playbook and blamed the media.

His spokesperson, Jill Hazelbacker, called it "a hit-and-run smear campaign." McCain invoked his service to his country and issued a blunt denial: "Obviously I am very disappointed in The New York Times article," he said. "It’s not true." And in what might be her second public utterance since she piped up to say that she is very proud of her country, would-be First Lady Cindy McCain — who bears an eerie resemblance to the lobbyist in question — joined her husband at a press conference to say that she, too, was "very disappointed in The New York Times."

"Americans are sick and tired of this kind of gutter politics," Hazelbacker declared in an official statement.

Maybe so — but you can’t say the same for the media. Just when it looked like McCain was comfortably, boringly, settling into his role as GOP nominee, a sexy front-pager broke that would not only spice things up, it would give the press a chance to drop everything and indulge in a little journalistic naval-gazing.

Hours after the Times posted its story Wednesday night, The Washington Post followed with its own version of a politician-meets-lobbyist tale told amid fundraising venues and inside private jets. AlterNet’s Joshua Holland provides the sordid summary:

"The heart of the Times (and Washington Post) story is that staffers became concerned that McCain, the Patron Saint of Straight-Shooterdom, was overly cozy with a lobbying hottie — a lobbyist whose clients had business before a committee McCain chaired — and warned her off of the Senator’s campaign. That comes from a named source, John Weaver, who says he was personally present at a meeting with (Vicki) Iseman, and personally warned her off."

The blogosphere lit up overnight, and following McCain’s 9 a.m. press conference, every talking head on television was weighing in on the McCain "sex scandal" — a scandal that ultimately has precious little to do with sex, given that the Times fell short of proving anything actually happened between McCain and Iseman.

In some ways, McCain is right: The media should be blamed — but not just for shoddy reporting of a rather sexless scandal. They should be castigated for ignoring a much more important and damning story about the so-called principled maverick — one that has actual implications for American democracy.

Mere hours before The New York Times broke its story on Wednesday, McCain made a totally unrelated — and apparently un-newsworthy — statement to reporters, in which he called for President Bush to veto the Senate’s anti-torture bill. He talked in support of "additional techniques" for interrogation, sounding ever more in line with the White House’s official stance. McCain, the "war hero" who has been an outspoken opponent of torture, voted against the bill, which would restrict the CIA to some 19 interrogation techniques listed in the Army field manual.

Now, having passed the Senate, the bill is headed for a veto at the hands of President Bush. For a man who would be president — and who is practically giddy at the prospect of being Commander in Chief — McCain’s push for a veto is ominous.

His evolving position on torture should be deeply troubling — much moreso than the current scandal. Yet it has received a fraction of the media attention that has already been devoted to whatever he did or did not do with a blonde lobbyist eight years ago.

Meanwhile, right-wing McCain supporters and critics alike are making so much noise chattering about family values and attacking the Times, McCain’s about-face on torture is likely to stay buried.

In fact, "the Times story may have succeeded in accomplishing what politics itself could not," observed The Atlantic’s Marc Ambiner, "unifying the conservative base around McCain by way of their visceral disgust with The New York Times and its lib-ber-ral politics."

So how did this mess get started?

According to an article published Thursday afternoon in The New Republic, word got out about the Times’ months-long investigation of McCain, so the publishing giant may have rushed to press to keep from getting scooped by another publication.

But that theory — ripped from the mouths of none other than McCain’s own advisers — is about as flimsy as the sex scandal itself.

Between right-wing howling against the Times and nerdy journalism gossip, the McCain fracas has largely become a story about a story. "We’re going to war with The New York Times," the McCain camp announced the night the article broke. Robert Bennet, McCain’s lawyer, complained to Wolf Blitzer that he had sat down with reporters and shown them "10 to 12 instances" where McCain had refused to do her bidding — but those examples had remained conspicuously absent from the piece.

At least some in the media have acknowledged that, distilled to its base, there’s very little that’s news in this story — unless you actually bought into the myth that McCain is the straight-shooting, ethical politician he claims to be.

Yet the coverage continues. "I think we’re going to have a feeding frenzy for a day, maybe a day and a half, then it will go away because it’s a nothing story," one McCain adviser said.

In contrast, no media feeding frenzy followed McCain’s vote against the anti-torture bill last week. It was forgotten faster than you could say "waterboarding."

Of course, this is a "sex scandal." Torture, by comparison, is old news.

Liliana Sequra writes for Alternet, where this column originally appeared.



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