[L]et’s be clear: the Times had forced McCain to walk their well-appointed plank months before he chose Palin. On Feb. 21 of this year, a front-page story in the Times . . . implied that the Arizona senator had an extra-marital relationship with Vicki Iseman, a lobbyist for telecommunications companies. After the story appeared, the Times was roundly criticized, and not just by conservative journalists, for its salacious suggestions. So it seems that McCain, at least on trial before the Times’ judges, was deemed guilty of breaking the conduct of principle and honesty before the vast majority of Americans had even heard the name Sarah Palin.
In many ways, the trajectory of the McCain campaign has mirrored that of George Allen’s 2006 re-election campaign.
There were early indications in 2006 that the media were gunning for Allen — who was then every conservative’s odds-on bet for the GOP 2008 presidential nomination — but the Allen campaign failed to engage the emergent narrative. (Excuse this lapse into media analyst jargon.) Then, when the “Macaca” video hit, it was like popping the top of a well-shaken bottle of beer– a torrent of negative media coverage that the campaign could not stop.
So, too, with McCain this year. Between Feb. 7, when Mitt Romney effectively ceded the Republican nomination, and Aug. 29, when Palin was named as nominee, the media had clearly shown that it viewed Obama as the inevitable and deserving winner. (Ask Hillary Clinton about that.) But the McCain campaign hadn’t really started pushing back against the “inevitability of Obama” narrative until July. By then, however, the media had already elected Obama in its own collective mind, so that McCain’s attempt to win the election was viewed as fundamentally illegitimate.
The media turned Sarah Palin into McCain’s “Macaca moment.” But a failure of media relations is always a two-way street, and the GOP’s image problem — of which this episode is an illustrative example — is not entirely a function of liberal bias.