Recalling the worst of Judith Miller’s reporting on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the New York Time ran one of its “fair and balanced” stories on the presidential race Monday.

The piece, which purported to assess similarities and differences between unpopular Republican President George Bush and hoping-to-be-popular Republican presidential candidate John McCain, was another example of how major media in the US seek to portray a relatively predictable conservative as a free-thinking political “maverick.”

The folks at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), the media watchdog group created in the tradition of pioneering media critic–and brilliant reporter–I.F. Stone, are appropriately upset with the Times.

FAIR’S analysis illustrates the group’s take-no-prisoners approach to major media in this era of apologia.

Manufacturing Difference Between McCain and BushNYT exaggerates areas where GOP leaders “mostly disagree”


In a front-page article headlined “Is McCain Like Bush? It Depends on the Issue,” the New York Times (6/17/08) managed to locate “striking differences” between Sen. John McCain and George W. Bush on several issues–in spite of contradictory evidence reported in the very same article about the two politicians’ overwhelming similarities on these very issues.

In the article, reporter Elisabeth Bumiller writes that “on the environment, American diplomacy and nuclear proliferation, Mr. McCain has strikingly different views from Mr. Bush.” Yet Bumiller offers little evidence for these supposedly striking differences. In fact, on the environment, she points out that while McCain has called for limits on greenhouse gas emissions, he “has a mixed record on the environment in the Senate — he has missed votes on toughening fuel economy standards and has opposed tax breaks meant to encourage alternative energy.”

Meanwhile, despite Bumiller’s claim about McCain and Bush’s “strikingly different views” on diplomacy, an accompanying chart includes “Diplomacy with Iran and Syria” as an area where Bush and McCain “mostly agree. ” As the chart observed, “Like the president, Mr. McCain has ruled out direct talks with Iran and Syria for now. Mr. McCain supported Mr. Bush when he likened those who would negotiate with ‘terrorists and radicals’ to appeasers of the Nazis, a remark widely interpreted as a rebuke to Senator Barack Obama.”

Bumiller’s claim for “strikingly different views” on diplomacy rests on a quote from McCain: “We cannot build an enduring peace based on freedom by ourselves, and we do not want to…. We have to strengthen our global alliances as the core of a new compact.” Does Bumiller really think that Bush speaks out against the need for strengthening alliances, such that rhetoric endorsing such alliances really constitutes a marked break from him?

The chart lists “climate change,” “oil and energy,” “federal spending,” “interrogation tactics” and “arms control” as issues on which McCain and Bush “mostly disagree.” Yet on climate change, McCain has joined Bush in opposing the most important international effort to date to tackle the problem—saying that “America did the right thing by not joining the Kyoto Treaty”–and insisting that any global accord must include China and India, as the chart acknowledges.

Some of the Times’ examples of McCain taking a stance different from Bush’s are on issues where McCain has actually flip-flopped, and has come around to Bush ‘s position. While interrogation is identified as an area on which Bush and McCain “mostly disagree,” the chart notes that McCain’s actual voting record has overwhelmingly supported Bush on rationalizing the use of torture techniques like “waterboarding” in interrogations: “He voted against a bill to force the Central Intelligence Agency to abide by the rules set out in the Army Field Manual on interrogation,” and helped pass a 2005 law that “gives the president the last word in establishing specific permissible interrogation techniques.”

Similarly, the first example of McCain and Bush “mostly disagreeing” on energy and oil is their alleged differences on drilling. The Times notes that “Mr. McCain opposes drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, once a top goal for Mr. Bush.” Actually , McCain’s position on Alaska drilling has been inconsistent (Extra! 5-6/08); most recently, in 2005, the senator voted to support drilling. Meanwhile, the chart notes that both McCain and Bush support off-shore oil drilling, and “both support development of more nuclear power.” The chart notes that McCain has voted against taxes on windfall oil profits, which are opposed by Bush, but credits him with breaking with Bush for commenting that he is “angry at the oil companies.” It also treats McCain’s call for “energy independence” as evidence that he “mostly disagrees” with Bush on energy policies–even though “energy independence” is a standard part of Bush’s rhetoric.

Some issues in the “mostly disagree” category reflect cases where Bush taken more than one position, and McCain agrees with an earlier one: “Last month, Mr. McCain urged Mr. Bush to return to his demand for a complete and irreversible disarmament of North Korea’s nuclear programs.”

On federal spending, McCain and Bush are said to “mostly disagree” because McCain takes a somewhat harder line against budget earmarks–without noting that both politicians are united in focusing attention on an aspect of the budget that accounts for only 0.6 percent of federal spending (Center for American Progress, 4/28/08). The rest of the spending item depicts McCain as being in accord with Bush: “Mr. McCain would also put a one-year freeze on discretionary spending, except veterans benefits and the military. Mr. Bush has had a similar freeze in place.”

In her article, Bumiller points out that “on balance, the McCain campaign has sought to emphasize the differences between Mr. McCain and the unpopular Mr. Bush rather than the similarities.” That makes sense, given the president’s record low approval ratings. But what is the New York Times’ interest in doing the same thing?

FAIR is not just about critique, it’s also about action. So the group is asking activists to contact New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt( with a simple question: Why did the New York Times exaggerate the differences between McCain and Bush, claiming that they have “strikingly different views” on issues that they mostly agree on?

The work of media reformers starts with challenging big media when it misinforms the American people. FAIR does that. And we can help them keep doing this essential work in this essential election year by supporting FAIR.