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McCain's Campaign Funding Hypocrisy: Why Are the Media Looking the Other Way?

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Last month, I wrote about the mainstream media's ongoing membership in the John McCain Protection Society and its offshoot, the Swift Boat Media for McCain, and of how their highly motivated efforts are affecting the presidential race.

The MSM's overheated response to Barack Obama's decision to opt out of the public campaign finance system was a textbook example.

"Obama chose winning over his word" and "tarnished his carefully honed image as a different kind of politician," said the AP's Liz Sidoti.

"Your typical politician," said Lou Dobbs.

"No wonder John McCain smelled a flip-flop," said Dean Reynolds on the CBS Evening News.

"People in this country like to believe that people play on a level playing field and that a campaign will be about ideas and personality; if you start with that much more money, is it basically fair?" asked Charlie Gibson.

Isn't it interesting how, after largely ignoring the issue for the last 30 years, during which the GOP consistently outfundraised and outspent Democrats in election after election, the media are suddenly all atwitter about whether the campaign finance system is "basically fair"? How dare Obama inspire 1.5 million donors, giving an average of $197 apiece, to help him raise more money than McCain?

"This is a big deal," said McCain of Obama's decision. "It's a big deal. He has completely reversed himself and gone back not on his word to me, but the commitment that he made to the American people. That's disturbing."

What's actually disturbing is the Swift Boat Media's complete indifference to McCain's bald-faced hypocrisy on the same issue. Amidst all the attacks on Obama's "flip-flop," how much have you read in the MSM about the fact that McCain has "completely reversed himself" on public financing -- and is currently breaking the law on a daily basis, making a mockery out of a campaign finance system he helped create?

In the fall of 2007, McCain opted into the public financing system for the GOP primaries, which meant he'd later receive just over $5 million in public funds in exchange for agreeing to a fundraising limit of around $54 million for the entire primary process, which ends when he accepts the nomination at the Republican National Convention in September.

By late November, his campaign was practically broke, so McCain took out a pair of $1 million loans, using the public funds he would receive as collateral.

Cut to Super Tuesday, when McCain had the Republican nomination all but wrapped up. Suddenly, he didn't want to be bound by that $54 million limit, so his campaign did a 180 and opted back out of the public financing system.

But as David Mason, the Republican-appointed chair of the FEC, has pointed out, you can't just unilaterally opt out -- especially after securing a loan based on having opted in. The response of the McCain campaign is quite simply to ignore Mason. And because the FEC currently lacks a quorum (thanks to stalling tactics by that human roadblock to reform, Mitch McConnell) that's where things stand, pending a ruling on a lawsuit filed by the DNC.

Yet few in the Swift Boat Media saw fit to point out this glaring contradiction in McCain's cries about broken commitments made to the American people. Indeed, as Media Matters points out, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the CBS Evening News, NBC's Nightly News, Fox News' Special Report, and CNN all dutifully reported McCain's "Big deal" claim without mentioning McCain's campaign finance chicanery.

One notable exception was CNN's John Roberts. When McCain surrogate Nancy Pfotenhauer tried to contrast Obama opting out of public financing and McCain's steadfast resolve in the face of torture at the Hanoi Hilton, Roberts, as noted by our Jason Linkins, firmly raised the question of whether McCain cheated the campaign financing system.

But that kind of pushback was rare, even as McCain adviser Sen. Lindsey Graham painted Obama's decision as a dark day for America: "This is just really sad for the country. For somebody with this much ability, this much talent, to fall this far, this soon... This guy wants to win, he'll do anything to win."

Looking back on the journey McCain has taken, from tireless champion of campaign finance reform to presidential nominee abusing every campaign finance loophole possible, Graham's words are actually a fitting epitaph for the loss of the Old John McCain of 2000. It is "just really sad for the country" that the man who once vowed "to have blood all over the floor of the Senate until we accede to the demands of the people" for meaningful reform has been replace by the John McCain of 2008.

Some advocates of public financing have found Obama's decision a disappointment. Others side with Francis Wilkinson who, writing in the New York Times, deemed it "probably the most obvious and inevitable decision he'll make all year -- justified both politically and ethically."

I'm torn. As a longtime supporter of public financing of campaigns, I'd certainly like to see a system where money no longer dominates the political process. But given the imperfections of the current system, including the powerful role independent 527s will likely play in the '08 race, Obama's decision is the clearly right one.

What's more, because of the revolutionary way his campaign has used the Internet, Obama, unlike candidates of the past, no longer needs to spend 2/3 of his time in fundraising dinners with fat cat donors. And wasn't that the goal of campaign finance reform in the first place?

So while Obama's decision is a subject open to debate, the mainstream media should not be allowed to get away with their continued refusal to accurately report on the fall of John McCain.

This is the very big deal.