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Mccain Neuters His Press

In his dystopian novel The Time Machine, H.G. Wells describes how the Morlocks, who had originally evolved as a species meant to provide for the more elite Eloi, have come to subjugate the Eloi: The spoon-fed Eloi live up on Earth, separated from the subterranean Morlocks. Since no real tasks are available to them, they spend all day lounging around, feeble, listless, and ambitionless. In the end, it turns out that they now no longer serve any purpose but to be farmed and eaten by their once-servile Morlocks.

I thought of The Time Machine yesterday while driving home from trying to cover a McCain/Palin rally in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, as a member of the press. The McCain press corps -- once the undisputed kings of McCainworld, with the best seats on the bus and unlimited bull sessions with the endlessly-solicitous candidate -- has, in the past couple of months, been turned into nothing so much as the campaign's Elois. Non-local reporters are sequestered in their own charter bus, separated from the Straight Talk Express, and quarantined at events. They are ordered to treat the candidates with "respect and deference," as though they were campaign secretaries. The basic function of a journalist is to ask questions -- fish swim, birds fly, reporters inquire -- but the McCain campaign no longer allows any questions, so there's not much for the traveling press to do beyond take down the minutes at event after event, publish what information the campaign deigns to provide, and bear witness to Sarah Palin's slowly-changing hairdo. 

While I was walking to the thronged gym where the McCain/Palin rally was being held, a man in a black SUV rolled down his window and offered me tickets. (Yes: Thanks to Sarah Palin, McCain events now have scalpers.) Looking back, I should have taken them. Identifying myself as a reporter got me pinned with a series of over-attentive personal campaign escorts, who funneled me up through back doors into the press's playpen, a distant balcony area as cut off from the bustling floor as the women's section at an Orthodox synagogue. Up in our balcony, writers listlessly check their Gmail and mill around the catered food table, which itself subtly telegraphs a message as to what kind of effete prisses the campaign thinks we are: There's caprese salad with fresh minced basil, tortellini, bottles of San Pellegrino, and organic green tea bags labeled "Om: to merely say it releases a vibration of peace."

As the reporters in the balcony see it, the campaign's refusal to let Palin take questions doesn't necessarily mean they're worried about her performance. It's just part of the broader McCain anti-press lockdown, in which there hasn't been a real media availability since something like mid-August. Everyone has adapted handily to the new order. Before the rally begins, one reporter has his story pulled up on his laptop screen: It's pre-written with just a couple of underlined blanks to fill in, like a Mad Libs. 

Suddenly a howl floats up to the balcony. It must be her -- but where the hell is she? Finally I spot Palin's pinlike head among a sea of bodyguards. "Can you hear her?" somebody asks, as she takes to the microphone. No matter. It's her acceptance speech, the reference to her husband as the "first dude," the boast that she put Alaska's statejet on eBay. Looking out the window, I can see that some better-informed rally attendees are waiting outside to shake the candidates' hands, a potential opportunity for some spontaneous coverage. But after McCain and Palin finish, I am regretfully informed that I cannot leave the balcony because somebody has supposedly injured themselves on the exit staircase. 

Why do reporters still bother to travel with McCain? Or, if we have to, why don't we rise up en masse, flout the quarantine or demand more access, an active press being fundamental to a democracy? Normally, cutting off the press poses at least the risk that reporters will turn against you. But a bit of Stockholm Syndrome has developed within the McCain press corps, a sense of awe at how deftly and brazenly the McCain campaign has rendered them useless and plugged its ears to their investigations. Reporters demolished the claim that the Palin opposed the Bridge to Nowhere, and yet the McCain campaign insolently still uses it. Writers dismantled the McCain campaign's untrue assertion that Barack Obama compared Sarah Palin to a pig yesterday, and yet the campaign put out an audacious ad featuring the ridiculous allegation, presumably on the assumption that Real Americans don't care what the elite press says anyway. The press has started to buy into that theory, too. "It's great, right?" one reporter who travels with the campaign told me in the balcony, summing up the prevailing it's-evil-but-it's-brilliant view of the new McCain press strategy. "I mean, it's smart. Why should they talk to us? What's in it for them?"

Eve Fairbanks