Why McCain's "Mole-Like Skin" Doesn't Matter--Despite the MSM Hype

Both presidential candidates may be perfectly healthy--but it's understandable if voters are feeling a little sick.

The biggest story on the campaign trail yesterday--and by "biggest" we mean "most chewed over on cable news"--wasn't Barack Obama's economic summit in Washington, D.C. It wasn't John McCain's visit to an oil rig in Bakersfield, Calif. And it certainly wasn't the hurdles Obama is facing in his attempt to expand the black vote or the democracy group that gives GOP donors unprecedented access to McCain.

It was a piece of "mole-like skin."

More specifically, it was a piece of mole-like skin--also referred to a "spot" and a "small little nick"--that used to reside on McCain's right cheek but no longer does. Yesterday morning, the Arizona senator, who has suffered from malignant skin cancer in the past, visited his dermatologist in Phoenix for a routine check up. The doc took a small slice of epidermis from McCain's face to be biopsied as "a precaution"--something "she does regularly"--and sent the candidate on his way with a clean bill of health. When McCain arrived in Bakersfield for the energy event, however, reporters noticed that he was wearing "a small round bandage" on his face. Hence the questions. Hence McCain's explanation. ("Melanoma is a preventable occurrence,'' he said. "That's the end of my lecture from the American Dermatology Association.") And hence the explosion of coverage, from a banner headline on Drudge to a breathless segment on Hardball to the pages of the Washington Post, where Chris Cillizza wrote that "events like today's 'mole-like' skin removal make McCain's job of convincing voters he is up to the job all the more difficult."

Such is campaign journalism in the dog days of summer.

On one hand, the MSM's fascination with McCain's epidermal escapades makes a certain kind of sense. In 2000, doctors removed a growth and more than 30 lymph nodes from McCain's face after discovering melanoma; the procedure left a noticeable scar streaking down his left cheek. Four years later, the melanoma resurfaced and was quickly removed. Given that McCain is seeking to be the oldest American--at 72 --elected to a first term as president, the public has a right to know as much as possible about his health concerns. So when he has a routine biopsy--or when his medical records are released--the press should dutifully relay the relevant information to its readers. Likewise, it makes sense that these readers are more interested in McCain's wellness than Obama's. After all, when pollsters for the Associated Press and Yahoo asked voters to name the first thing that came to mind when McCain's name was mentioned, nearly one in five said "old"--by far the most common response. In contrast, the news that Obama, 46, had a sore hip examined Sunday in Chicago was met with a collective yawn. Health matters more the older you get. No one wants a sick president. It's obvious.

The problem is that too much of the coverage crosses the line from information about McCain's condition--which, by the way, is healthy--to "analysis" of how stories about his condition affect him politically. (Those ironic quotation marks are intentional.) The typical report starts with a salacious lead announcing that McCain has had a "health scare"; continues by asking "whether the 'mole like' skin has any long term ramifications on the campaign"; chugs along with several speculative paragraphs asserting that "stories about moles and biopsies are -- at best -- not helpful and -- at worst -- decidedly harmful to McCain's chances" because "the more voters are reminded about his age, and the more doubts about his health are raised over the course of the next four months, the more pause voters will likely have about voting him into office"; and concludes by contrasting McCain with the "vigorous" Obama, who's known for "working out for 188 minutes and shooting hoops wherever he goes."

The absurd (and unsettling) thing about these dispatches (the excerpts above are from Cillizza's Washington Post item) is that instead of reporting the actual facts and letting readers react they attempt to analyze how readers will react once presented with the facts--without any evidence whatsoever that voters are actually reacting the way the author assumes they will. It's journalism in reverse. If McCain were ill, that would be one thing. But for "analyses" like Cillizza's to be credible while McCain is still healthy, they'd have to show that there's a sizable, potentially decisive group of swing voters out there who'd be happy to vote for the senator--whether on the issues, or his personality, or whatever--if only he weren't getting precautionary biopsies and reminding them that he's old. They'd have to quote John Doe of Anytown, U.S.A. saying "I agree with that McCain guy on taxes and Iraq and energy, but I'm so worried he'll die in office that I plan to vote for Obama, whom I disagree with, instead." Unfortunately, this is implausible. The fact is, McCain's a 71-year-old cancer survivor in "excellent" health, according to his doctors. Americans know that. About 45 percent are planning to vote for him; about 45 percent are not. I'm not saying McCain's age isn't an issue. Plenty of voters think it is. It's just that anyone who sees it as dealbeaker probably prefers Obama for other reasons as well.

That's the end of my lecture from the Society of Professional Journalists.