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McCain Camp Charges NBC’s Mitchell With Bias, Admits She’s Right

The McCain campaign is apparently angry with NBC’s Andrea Mitchell for reporting that the Obama campaign staff suggested Sen. John McCain may have been able to hear some of Sen. Barack Obama’s answers to Pastor Rick Warren’s questions at the Saddleback Church forum Saturday. Before McCain’s appearance at the forum, Warren told the audience that while Obama was onstage, McCain was sequestered in a "cone of silence" — presumably a room in which he would not hear his opponent’s answers to Warren’s questions. (Clearly, he didn’t remember that on the TV show, "Get Smart," where the "cone of silence" was a running bit, it never worked.)

Politico’s Mike Allen reports that McCain Campaign Manager Rick Davis sent an angry letter to NBC News President Steve Capus, challenging the objectivity of the network’s coverage. From the letter:

We are extremely disappointed to see that the level of objectivity at NBC News has fallen so low that reporters are now giving voice to unsubstantiated, partisan claims in order to undercut John McCain.

Nowhere was this more evident than with NBC chief correspondent Andrea Mitchell’s comments on "Meet the Press" this morning. In analyzing last night’s presidential forum at Saddleback Church, Mitchell expressed the Obama campaign spin that John McCain could only have done so well last night because he "may not have been in the cone of silence and may have had some ability to overhear what the questions were to Obama." Here are Andrea Mitchell’s comments in full:

Mitchell: "The Obama people must feel that he didn’t do quite as well as they might have wanted to in that context, because what they are putting out privately is that McCain may not have been in the cone of silence and may have had some ability to overhear what the questions were to Obama. He seemed so well-prepared." (NBC’s "Meet The Press," 8/17/08)

Make no mistake: This is a serious charge. Andrea Mitchell is repeating, uncritically, a completely unsubstantiated Obama campaign claim that John McCain somehow cheated in last night’s forum at Saddleback Church. Instead of trying to substantiate this blatant falsehood in any way,

The only problem is: Andrea Mitchell and her unnamed sources within the Obama campaign were right. According to The McCain Report blog on the campaign’s Website, McCain spent at least part of the time in a limousine en route to the forum. He may have had some ability to overhear the questions. But, as Politico’s Ben Smith notes, this doesn’t mean McCain cheated:

[T]here was no TV in the car…There were, presumably, blackberries; though in fact, no evidence has emerged that McCain had the (obvious!) questions early, and Warren, not McCain, made the claim that he was in a sealed room.

McCain campaign spokeswoman Nicolle Wallace fell back on the Arizona senator’s experience as a prisoner of war as a blanket defense against any criticism, according to The New York Times:

“The insinuation from the Obama campaign that John McCain, a former prisoner of war, cheated is outrageous,” Ms. Wallace said.

Of course, it’s hard to understand what McCain’s former POW status has to do with anything. But in any case, even if McCain heard every word of Obama’s interview, it was of no consequence. First, Warren gave both candidates a heads up on some of the questions. Second, this was just another campaign event for McCain. At no point during the forum did McCain veer far from his standard stump speech. Anyone who has attended one of McCain’s town hall meetings in the last few months has heard just about every story McCain told Saturday. Clearly, since McCain held fast to his daily script — and told the audience exactly what they wanted to hear — Obama’s answers did not have, and could not have had, any bearing on his performance.

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