Will the Media Stop Exploiting John McCain?

I can’t be the only one who finds this coverage to be more than a little creepy:

As he battles brain cancer and the debilitating side effects of his aggressive treatment, Mr. McCain himself is reckoning with his history and the future, as he and a stream of friends share memories and say what needs to be said.

No one is saying goodbye, not explicitly. The son and grandson of admirals, Mr. McCain “doesn’t like overt sentimentality,” as his friend the former chief of staff Grant Woods put it. But his visitors are telling him they love him, how much he has meant to them — and together they are taking care of unfinished business…

Mr. McCain, 81, is still in the fight, struggling with the grim diagnosis he received last summer: He has been leading conference calls with his staff in a strained voice, grinding out three-hour physical therapy sessions and rewarding himself most days with a tall glass of Absolut Elyx on ice.

But his health has become a matter of immediate political interest. Mr. McCain’s future may determine whether Republicans retain their single-seat Senate majority: Should the senator die or resign before the end of May, there will most likely be a special election for the seat this fall. But under Arizona law, if he remains in office into June, there will probably not be an election for the seat until 2020, which Republicans would prefer given Democratic enthusiasm this year.

The matter of succession for the McCain seat — a topic of such intense discussion that Republicans officials here joke that Washington lawyers know Arizona election law better than any lawyer in the state — is officially verboten among party officials and the senator’s friends. They are determined to reward him with the same good ending that his friend Senator Edward M. Kennedy enjoyed before he succumbed to brain cancer in 2009.

Ten years ago this month, when Kennedy was diagnosed with cancer, I recall a rather distasteful tone to the coverage of his illness, almost a sense that the Fourth Estate couldn’t wait for Kennedy to pass away due to the likely bonanza in ratings and newspaper sales his passing would generate. It’s hard to read the coverage of McCain today without the same morbid sense that the press wants to hasten his death in order to cash in.

Whatever you think of John McCain, he deserves better than to have his impending passing be turned into a media circus, no? The McCain Death Watch is nothing short of sour; it’s as though the controversies surrounding the media exploitation of the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr., and the lessons learned from those controversies, have been forgotten–or deliberately ignored.

Even McCain’s strongest detractors–the ones who rightfully fault him for genuflecting to the forces of right-wing madness by choosing Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008 or abandoning the fight for federal climate-change legislation in 2009–would acknowledge that the man deserves to spend what may be his final days in peace, without having the press effectively waiting outside his window for him to take his last breath. The Fourth Estate must stop doing this. It is not right to pursue profit from impending death. It’s just sleazy and sick.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.