How can journalists cover the views of a candidate whose views are indeterminate?
The other day, asked if he supports ending mountaintop removal mining, John McCain said, "I do."
But then he added, "I’m happy to tell you that I’ve seen a dramatic improvement in the behavior of the coal companies. They are doing a much better job."
Contacted by reporter Ken Ward Jr. about his support for ending MTR, the McCain campaign … well, look:
Initially, McCain spokeswoman Gail Gitcho repeatedly said the candidate did not support a ban on mountaintop removal. But when video of his remarks in Orlando was posted on YouTube, Gitcho confirmed McCain’s support for ending the practice and issued a short statement.
So you get seeming support for an MTR ban, followed by an incoherent and almost literally meaningless ramble about how coal companies are "doing a much better job" (at what? mountaintop removal?), followed by a denial from the campaign, followed by a reversal of the denial from the campaign.
So what does McCain think about mountaintop removal mining? What will he do about it in office? There’s no way to know. We’re all guessing.
This raises a point I’ve been meaning to make. Basically, it’s very difficult for a policy- or issue-focused journalist (as opposed to a campaign horserace journalist) to cover a presidential race when one of the candidates lies all the time and, when he’s not lying, doesn’t seem to have any idea what he’s saying.
Remember when McCain said his cap-and-trade program doesn’t include a mandatory cap? Remember when he said he hadn’t missed any crucial energy votes? That he would support a windfall profits tax, except he wouldn’t?
Frequently his staff will trail along after him and try to explain these statements away — he misspoke, or he meant something else, or it was taken out of context, or his views have evolved.
My question is: how are we to know? Honestly. I mean we journalists, who are trying to convey truthful information to our readers, but also voters, who are trying to decide who to vote for.
We have a chart showing McCain’s environment/energy stances, and it looks very official and objective. And yeah, we’ve done the best we can gathering his statements and record. But in one sense it’s deceptive, in that it gives those views a clarity and firmness they clearly don’t really have.
In short: how can we tell you what McCain “really” thinks when, on most issues, particularly domestic issues, there seems to be no such thing. We can’t trust what he says and we’re not God, so we can’t read his mind. What should we do?