A review of Free Ride: John McCain and the Media by David Brock and Paul Waldman.

In this informative and thought-provoking critique of the media and its relationship with Senator John McCain, David Brock and Paul Waldman argue that McCain, the Republican candidate for the 2008 presidential election, has "cracked the code" of dealing with journalists and that’s why he’s received such favorable press coverage in the past.

The authors propose that John McCain has been well received by the media in the past because of his excellent rapport with journalists — he gave it regular access, he was willing to talk on the record, and he was never afraid to be the “guy next door” who shoots the breeze and sometimes says things he later regrets. The authors also demonstrate how McCain has cultivated his "maverick" image, encouraging reporters to think of him as a trailblazer who breaks with his own party, when his voting record shows a mainstream Republican with a few pet issues.

Another factor the authors address is the nature of the media itself. Smaller media outlets frequently use wire stories from the bigger news outlets, which tends to create a more homogeneous view of a candidate than a news consumer might otherwise get. They also compare the type of coverage he gets from his home state media, which tends to be less flattering  than the national media. The dustups between McCain and local journalists are legendary in Arizona. Brock and Waldman stick to the facts in exploring McCain’s long history with the press, neither fawning over the man nor suggesting that the national media has allowed itself to be manipulated by a cunning media strategy.

It’s a quote-heavy book that draws on numerous sources to illustrate the arguments presented on John McCain’s treatment of and by the media, from print and cable television news reporting as well as the senator’s own record, interviews, etc. The book paints the picture of a master at work, using the media carefully and deliberately in his political career.

What the book doesn’t answer, however, is why McCain abandoned this strategy when he became the Republican nominee for president. Instead of the open, collegial relationship the press had come to expect from McCain, it was instead kept at arms length. He treated it as a traditional Republican candidate would treat the press: as an enemy. Predictably, with their access taken away, the press turned on McCain. The majority of his coverage since mid-September has been negative, and the standard protestations of liberal media bias emanated from the campaign.

It is unclear why the McCain campaign would throw away one of its candidate’s greatest assets in pursuit of the presidency. This book details what a powerful weapon it was, and how skillfully McCain has wielded it in the past. In exploring McCain’s previous relationship with the press, one comes away with a new view of McCain and who he really is as a person and as a politician, rather than a nuanced view of how and why the media behaves the way it does toward the candidate. One almost feels that it is the media that is getting the free ride.

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