Media Miscues Anew on McCain

The story has been written
three times: First by the Associated Press in March 2005, again by U.S. News & World Report last May, and then by The Washington Post on New Year’s Eve. And each story was highly inaccurate.

The claim in each story was this: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) performed political “favors” for Cablevision Systems chairman Charles F. Dolan because Dolan gave $200,000 to a McCain-backed political foundation called the Reform Institute.

And the Cablevision money flowed McCain’s way, the stories alleged, because Dolan and McCain were political chums on the a la carte sale of cable channels as an alternative to cable’s mega-package offering.

Each story was flawed for a key reason: McCain wants a new law or Federal Communications Commission rule that would force a la carte on cable.

Dolan, a cable-system pioneer who helped launch HBO, has never supported cable a la carte by government fiat.

Somehow, the fact that McCain and Dolan were far apart on the a la carte issue didn’t stop the AP, U.S. News and the Post from reporting that McCain kept trying to provide Dolan with favors he didn’t want.

The first alleged McCain “favor” to Dolan was an invitation four years ago to testify before the Senate Commerce Committee on cable-programming issues while McCain was the panel’s chairman.

A week later, the Reform Institute — described by the Post as “a tax-exempt group [McCain started] that advocated an end to outsize political donations” — hit up Dolan for $200,000. He sent a $100,000 check a few months later.

For context, the Post hinted that Dolan sat before McCain’s panel because he testified “in favor of a position backed by McCain,” meaning a la carte mandates.

But that is not what Dolan did. Instead, he spoke on three different issues and his prepared remarks didn’t use the words “a la carte.”

The second alleged McCain “favor” came in May 2004, when McCain sent a letter to the FCC reciting his support for a la carte. The letter didn’t say Dolan agreed on the need for regulation. Obviously, he couldn’t, because it would not have been the truth. Dolan, the Post said, cut his second $100,000 check after McCain wrote the FCC.

The AP story suggested that McCain’s letter to the FCC was a sort of out-of-the-blue plug for Dolan.

Actually, McCain had his own reason to nag the FCC. At the request of top House members on telecom policy, the FCC had just agreed to study a la carte. In related FCC comments in August 2004, Cablevision did not advocate a la carte mandates.

News stories that claim a financial quid pro quo need to be hog tight, horse high and bull strong. The McCain-Dolan accounts in the varsity media had just the bull.