Twenty years ago, the way that Sen. John McCain's campaign recently handled The New York Times' allegations about McCain's supposed affair/relationship with a lobbyist would have been unthinkable.
Back then, a presidential-level politician would have called a press conference to deny the charges and take a swipe at the paper, but that would be it. And the allegations would have dogged him for months.
Instead, in a precedent-setting move for a politician at this level, McCain and his surrogates hit back hard at the Times, making the paper, rather than the allegations leveled by it, the focus of their response. McCain's campaign strategists targeted the paper in exactly the same way they would a rival politician or political group that had run a particularly vicious attack ad against them.
Two decades ago, when the media as a whole had far more credibility with the general public, a politician who attacked the messenger would have come off looking weak and evasive.
Instead, the McCain camp, which had had months to prepare their response to a story they knew was coming, made a critical wager -- that the Times no longer had enough credibility left with the public to level major allegations at a national political figure and be believed without concrete documentation. The "sources" papers like the Times had always relied on in the past simply weren't enough to convince skeptical readers anymore, and the Times suddenly found itself, rather than McCain, at the center of a political firestorm.
It was a turning of tables that would have been unthinkable decades ago. Sure, the Clintons have a long history of screaming about media bias in general, but never in recent memory has a politician so effectively redirected the laser beam of public scrutiny back on the Fourth Estate and come away virtually unsinged.
The general public may have missed the significance of how McCain handled the Times, but politicians and pollsters didn't. Pollsters immediately set out to measure the damage McCain and the Times sustained in much the same way they would after a tussle between political rivals.
Poll after poll found that McCain had wagered correctly. Two-thirds of American adults had heard or read about the Times' Feb. 21 story, a University of Pennsylvania National Annenberg election survey found. Of those, 41 percent said they believed McCain -- nearly twice as many as the 21 percent who believed the Times. Ouch.
Another poll by Rasmussen Reports had similar findings. Of the 65 percent of likely voters who had followed the story, 66 percent actually believed it was an attempt by the paper to hurt the McCain campaign. Only 22 percent believed the Times was merely reporting the news.
That's a stunning indictment of the paper when you consider that McCain is a politician, a profession that routinely ranks in the teens percentage-wise on annual surveys of which vocations the public trusts and admires.
Overall, the poll found just 24 percent of American voters have a favorable view of the Times. Forty four percent have an unfavorable opinion and 31 percent have no opinion. The ratings, Rasmussen explained, are much like politicians' approval ratings. That means that at present, McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, who all have approval ratings around or slightly below 50 percent, are roughly twice as well thought of as the Times. Did I mention these people are politicians? And two of them have major scandals in their backgrounds?
The Times is not alone in this. According to USA Today, annual polls have tracked the decline of trust in the media from 54 percent in 1989 to 32 percent in 2000. By 2007, that number had plummeted to 19.6 percent, making the media roughly as popular as Congress.
This is why the recent Saturday Night Live skit mocking media members for hurling tough questions at Clinton in a debate while offering to run errands for Obama hit home with audiences. The sketch was replayed for a week straight on cable news stations because it had a punchline the public gets. And it is why you'll see politicians begin to use the same tactic McCain did against the media outlets that challenge them.
A lot of reasons have been given for the decline of newspapers and the traditional media over the last 20 years, and many of them have been legitimate. But you can't discount how closely the plunge in public trust in the media has tracked the decline in readership and revenues over the last two decades.
Now that lack of trust is beginning to manifest itself in the media's ability to police politicians, look for them to begin to take advantage of it.