Mike Murphy, John McCain's media consultant, raised eyebrows when he bluntly told The Wall Street Journal about their campaign strategy in South Carolina and Michigan: The Bush team "used their base, the Christian right. So we had every right to use ours, which is the media." But Mr. Murphy went further: "We had to give Mr. Bush some of that Falwell baggage. You join the Lucchese crime family and you join for life." This wild analysis-Baptist TV preacher equals Mafia crime family-wasn't just macho consultant talk. A few days later, Mr. McCain himself adopted the wild comparisons, traveling to Pat Robertson's home base of Virginia Beach, Va., to announce, "Neither party should be defined by pandering to the outer reaches of American politics and the agents of intolerance, whether they be Louis Farrakhan or Al Sharpton on the left or Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell on the right." Where were the media fact checkers? Could Mr. Robertson be compared to a man who called Judaism "a gutter religion" and denounced the United States from Libya? Could Mr. Falwell be compared to a preacher who sparked a deadly riot and spearheaded the phony sexual-assault charges of Tawana Brawley? Yes, reporters announced with glee. On CBS, Dan Rather declared: "This could be a defining day in an election year battle for the soul of the Republican Party. John McCain said George Bush is now aligned with, in McCain's view, peddlers of intolerance, division, and smears." Mr. McCain was allowed to both denounce "division and slander" and then attack a wide swath of the GOP, comparing its friends to blatant race-baiters and anti-Semites. Mr. McCain's malice against Mr. Robertson matched well with Mr. Rather's. Since 1995, Mr. Rather has made it a habit to imply that the Christian Coalition isn't really Christian. On 10 different occasions, Mr. Rather has referred to them with a 10-foot pole of journalistic disdain. "The hard-right lobbying group and political movement calling itself, quote, 'the Christian Coalition,'" he began one report. Mr. Rather would not play this game with the Religious Left like, for example, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The joint McCain/media assault also obscures Mr. Robertson's actual record of pragmatism in recent presidential races. Just as he spurned social conservative standard-bearers for Bob Dole in 1996, Mr. Robertson lined up for George W. Bush and not Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, or Gary Bauer. But reporters delighted in placing Mr. Robertson and his supporters on the "outer fringes" of the political spectrum. In Newsweek, Jonathan Alter called Mr. McCain's speech "a milestone" that marks the ascent of a new Republican Party, a party of "fiscal conservatives who believe that the GOP can't win without new blood, and the new blood is moderate." Their only opponents, he wrote, were "Death Wish Republicans." Time's Nancy Gibbs sounded similar in dividing the GOP into the "Purity Wing" and the "Victory Wing." But Mr. McCain wasn't finished. The next day on his campaign bus, he added that Mr. Robertson and Mr. Falwell were an "evil influence" on Republicans: "You're supposed to tolerate evil in your party in the name of party unity?" Reporters and pundits criticized Ronald Reagan for almost a decade for telling religious broadcasters that the Soviet Union was the "focus of evil in the modern world." Now a Republican presidential candidate was calling the religious broadcasters the Evil Empire, but reporters didn't find Mr. McCain factually incorrect, just tactically incorrect. Time's Ms. Gibbs suggested sadly that "when he went too far and called the mullahs evil, he allowed the Texans to whisper once more that McCain was simply not steady enough to carry the flag for his or any other party." Reporters predicted that Mr. Bush's victories with Religious Right support will doom him in the fall. As National Review editor Rich Lowry explained: "The media consider these voters inherently problematic and somehow illegitimate. I defy anyone to show me a story saying 'Gore had a great victory in Washington state, but guess what, he won union households eight to one, and that's a real bad thing for him.'" The only correction appended to Mr. McCain's reckless insults came from the voters. If Mr. McCain's gambit had worked, reporters would have celebrated his genius instead of bemoaning his decline. Who says conservatives can't have a voice in the media?
-Tim Graham is director of media analysis for the Media Research Center in Alexandria, Va.