Many Republicans who do not agree with him on any number of issues have long been aware that John McCain receives exceptionally good press, and lots of it. In its analysis of last week's coverage the Project for Excellence in Journalism found McCain was featured or played prominently in 37 percent of 597 campaign stories analyzed, compared with Romney, at 21 percent. Perhaps even more surprising, McCain topped fellow Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who were in 34 percent and 32 percent of the stories, respectively. We all know the media narrative by now. The maverick Republican war hero is the white knight who tirelessly tilts against the dark side of his own party.
While watching the media cut away from the middle of McCain's speech last night to go to Obama's headquarters it dawned on me what the next part of the media narrative about McCain might be. One minute my screen was filled with a shot of McCain and his wife Cynthia, who looked plastic in her upswept helmet hair, red suit and pearls straight out of the 1980s, Behind him were three gray haired people, his mother, Senator Joe Lieberman and Florida governor Charlie Crist. Then the camera panned a group of mostly middle aged to old men in suits who were standing around applauding. The two or three women all had white hair. The next minute the screen was filled with a shot of Obama with a dozen or so young men and women of mixed race behind him, waving signs and cheering. The combined ages of the people on McCain's podium probably equaled that of the combined age of the Obama podium even though three times as many people were standing behind Obama. The difference in energy levels was staggering. (H.T. Duane Patterson at Hugh Hewitt for adding up the ages. Film clip linked here.)
Can a media narrative about a Republican candidate ever have a truly happy ending? Most Republicans doubt it. The biases have been too ingrained for too long. But I suspect the media won't suddenly rediscover faults in McCain they have previously ignored. That would be too obvious and might actually raise sympathy for him. No, theirs will be a tale full of sorrow told with great reluctance. First the stories will come out about McCain being the oldest president ever on inauguration day should he win. Then we will increasingly see photos that make McCain look every bit his his age. Film clips will be selected for the way they make it look like each year is an bearable weight upon Republican nominee's shoulders. The camera will linger on hands marked with liver spots. Stories will start to appear about him not remembering something he said, though it will of course be attributed to his talking to so many people on the hectic campaign trail. (This might already be happening. The Wall Street Journal's John Fund has stated that McCain must have forgetten what he has said about Justice Alito because he chats with so many people.) The media coverage of McCain's campaign will slowly take on an autumnal quality. In a wistful voice someone on a news panel will say if only McCain had won his party's nomination in 2000. How different the nation might be. Another one will pipe up. Better yet, imagine if he had made the primary challenge to Bush (41) in 1992 instead of Pat Buchanan. Short elegiac news segments of McCain on the stump will be sandwich between much longer ebullient stories of the history being made by the Democrat nominee, as if McCain even lacked the stamina to be the subject of an extended news story, much less shoulder the responsibility for the nation's business.
I can see it happening, especially if the visual image of his campaign continues to be as poor as it looked on Fox last night. A campaign that has relied to a remarkable degree upon free press coverage might be about to discover just how expensive such coverage can turn out to be in the long run if it doesn't revamp its on camera image.