Even by the usual standards, the Washington Post’s coverage of the Virginia Senate race between incumbent George Allen and former Secretary of the Navy Jim Webb has been remarkably one-sided. Since mid-August, the Post has published approximately 100 newspaper articles and editorials about allegations that Allen is racist. To counter such obsessive coverage from the region’s most high-profile newspaper, the Allen campaign has dredged up a number of politically incorrect comments from Webb’s past. The result? One of the nation’s most promising political races has degenerated into a mudfest.
By now it’s an all-too-familiar story. On August 11, at a campaign rally in Breaks, Virginia, Allen pointed to a Webb campaign volunteer who was filming the event and shouted, “Let’s give a welcome to macaca here. Welcome to America, and the real world of Virginia.” It was a significant gaffe. The volunteer — a college student of Indian descent who was born and raised in northern Virginia — put his video on the web, and after a few days of circulating on the liberal blogs, it was on washingtonpost.com. On August 15, the Post ran a story on page A01 titled, “Allen Quip Provokes Outrage, Apology; Name Insults Webb Volunteer.”
The incident certainly merited coverage, but nothing like what was to follow. The Post followed up Tuesday’s story (and accompanying editorial) with another front-page story on Wednesday. On Thursday, three stories in the Post were about the “macaca” incident, including one purporting to debunk Allen’s excuse that “macaca” was a nickname referring to the volunteer’s mohawk-style haircut. Style-section reporter Libby Copeland reported that the hairstyle in question was not a mohawk at all, but rather “a hybrid of the mullet and the ‘faux-hawk,’ a hipster look that peaks at the top of the head, reminiscent of the cartoon character Tintin.”
As the Post continued to hammer away at the story, the Allen campaign exhumed an allegation that Webb had distributed anti-Semitic flyers during his primary campaign. The flyers, which Webb had approved, featured a caricature of his Jewish opponent with a big cigar and his pockets stuffed with cash. “Allen’s campaign has responded to the incident by accusing Webb of tolerating anti-Semitism,” Post reporters Tim Craig and Michael D. Shear wrote in an article the following Saturday titled “Allen Flap May Give A Boost To Webb; Reenergized Va. Democrats Gain Support.”
As the campaign got dirtier, the Post exhausted every conceivable angle in order to keep the “macaca” story in the paper. First, it sought out the professional grievance groups (“For One Group, ‘Macaca’ Recalls Slurs After 9/11”). Then, it compared Allen’s woes to those of other (Republican) politicians (“Comments Haunt Another Senator; Montana’s Burns Joked About Latinos”). Finally — two weeks after the incident — the Post profiled Macaca himself (“Fairfax Native Says Allen’s Words Stung”).
Allen responded to the Post’s “macaca” drumbeat with more allegations that Webb had made un-PC remarks of his own. This time, Allen seized upon an essay Webb had written in 1979 titled “Women Can’t Fight” in which Webb expressed his strong opposition to women in combat. The Washington Post gave this story the headline, “Va. Senate Race Goes Negative on 1979 Essay” — as if the Webb campaign hadn’t already gone negative by milking the “macaca” incident for weeks.
What came next made all that preceded it look like high-minded debate. On September 24, the liberal web magazine Salon.com reported that, according to several of Allen’s college football teammates, he used the “N-word” in college. The Post picked up the story two days later, and two days after that it covered allegations that Webb had also used the “N-word” in college. Allen’s accusers were admitted Democratic partisans, and Webb’s accuser a Republican, but none of this stopped the Post or other mainstream media outlets from following them down into a gutter of unsubstantiated rumors.
After the “N-word” debacle, the Post took an even weirder swipe at Allen. After weeks of portraying him as a racist redneck, it published a 1,302-word article about how his “cowboy” image was nothing more than a “shtick” (“Will Sen. Allen’s Cowboy Boots Fit Virginia Voters? Detractors Call Cowboy Image a Shtick”). As National Review’s Byron York noted at the time, “Webb’s senior advisor is the only detractor quoted in Shear’s article, which features positive quotes from two present and former Allen staffers, plus one Allen fan.”
Not content merely to portray Allen as a phony, the Post also tried to sell Webb as genuine and modest. Last week the Post published an article about Webb titled “Webb is Reluctant to Advertise Duty,” in which Shear and Craig wrote that Webb is “uncomfortable talking about his personal story even if doing so could help him unseat Republican Sen. George Allen.” NRO’s John J. Miller pointed out that Shear and Craig must have missed the numerous photos and stories about Webb’s service in Vietnam adorning his campaign website.
But perhaps the most bizarre instance of biased reporting came in the form of a soft profile of Webb in the Post’s Style section. Webb told reporter Libby Copeland that he was displeased with the fact that “Towel-heads and rednecks became the easy villains in so many movies out there.” Two things made this comment strange. First, as NRO’s Greg Pollowitz has noted, Middle Easterners — “towel-heads,” if you will — were the villains in a 2000 movie written by Webb called Rules of Engagement. Second, the Post let the matter pass without any kind of sanctimonious outcry. Based on its “macaca” coverage, one can only imagine the Post’s reaction if George Allen had said something like this.
At first, the race between Allen and Webb looked like the kind of race policy wonks dream about. As governor of Virginia during the 1990s, Allen pulled off a trifecta of conservative reforms — abolishing parole, overhauling welfare, and establishing testing and standards in education — all while bringing billions of dollars of high-tech investment to the state. Jim Webb, Allen’s Democratic challenger, is a decorated Vietnam veteran, former Reagan appointee and best-selling novelist. Each offered starkly different views of the war in Iraq, and the race initially held out the promise of lively debate on the most important issues facing the Senate.
Instead, it has degenerated into a disgraceful mud-slinging contest — a race to the bottom aided in no small part by the Washington Post.
– Stephen Spruiell is NRO’s media blogger.