Comrade Obama?

Press fails to question McCain's "Obama is a socialist" implication

Only in our screwy media culture can a candidate imply, on little evidence, that his opponent is a socialist, confident in the knowledge that the press won’t scrutinize the claim, or stop to ask him what the hell he’s talking about.

In an interview with The Kansas City Star yesterday, John McCain said of Barack Obama: “His voting record … is more to the left than the announced socialist in the United States Senate, Bernie Sanders of Vermont.” Asked whether he thinks Obama is a socialist, McCain replied: “I don’t know. All I know is his voting record, and that’s what people usually judge their elected representatives by.”

This morning,, sensing controversy, transcribed that brief exchange into a news item.

There are, um, numerous problems here.

First, McCain, of course, wasn’t asked where his assessment of Obama’s voting record comes from. It’s likely, though, that he’s referring to the National Journal rankings, which found that Obama had the Senate’s most liberal voting record. But neither CNN nor the Star bothered to point out that those rankings have been challenged, persuasively, by numerous analysts. One of the votes that contributed to Obama’s “most liberal” ranking, for instance, was his support for a bill, proposed by Joe Lieberman, to establish a Senate Office of Public Integrity. Even National Journal’s editor has conceded that you should not rely exclusively on his magazine’s rankings to determine a candidate’s ideology—which is exactly what McCain, and therefore CNN and the Star, likely did in this case. Nor did either news outlet note that several other rankings put Obama much further down the list of “most liberal.”

But more fundamentally, neither news outlet independently tried to evaluate the validity of McCain’s implied charge. The obvious way to do that would be to examine Obama’s economic proposals (for instance, repealing the Bush tax cuts, which were aimed primarily at the wealthy, and instead providing a tax cut for 150 million working- and middle-class Americans), and then consider whether they meet the commonly understood definition of socialism, which Wikipedia describes as “various economic and political concepts of state or collective (i.e. public) ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods and services.” (They don’t.)

(It’s also worth noting that neither news outlet challenges the obviously mistaken idea that “socialist” means “really really liberal.” Senators vote on scores of issues that have nothing to do with economics. Support for abortion rights, or stem cell research, has nothing to do with socialism—Stalin criminalized abortion. But maybe it’s too much to expect this level of precision from political reporters.)

The larger point is this: about two minutes worth of close scrutiny would be enough to convince any reasonable observer that to suggest Obama is a socialist is to drain the term of any meaning. Everyone involved knows this, including McCain (which is why he settled for implying, rather than saying so outright.) But by the rules of today’s political press, the “news” is that McCain made an explosive-sounding attack. Whether that attack is substantively valid just isn’t relevant to reporters.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Zachary Roth is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, Salon, The Daily Beast, and Talking Points Memo, among other outlets.