McCain's "Cone Of Silence" At Saddleback

At Saddleback Church's Saturday evening "civil forum" with the presidential candidates, it was Barack Obama who sat down first with Pastor Rick Warren. Warren asked Obama the same questions he would later ask Obama rival John McCain – though he noted that McCain was in a "cone of silence" and could not hear the questions in advance.

As the New York Times reports, however, McCain was not in a "cone of silence" during Obama's questioning. Instead, he was in his motorcade on his way to the church. McCain's performance at the forum was considered strong, and some Obama supporters speculated that the Arizona senator heard the questions in advance.

McCain spokeperson Nicolle Wallace, a former CBS News consultant, told the Times last night that "[t]he insinuation from the Obama campaign that John McCain, a former prisoner of war, cheated is outrageous."

Warren's first question for McCain was a joking reference to his comfort level in the "cone of silence." The presumptive GOP nominee quipped that he "was trying to hear through the wall."

The McCain campaign, meanwhile, is protesting discussing on NBC News about whether or not McCain had access to the questions. As Politico reports, campaign manager Rick Davis sent a letter requesting a meeting with the news network's president. He suggests the network is "abandoning non-partisan coverage of the presidential race."

In the letter, Davis objects to a statement by NBC's Andrea Mitchell on "Meet The Press." Mitchell said on the program that some in the Obama campaign were suggesting "that McCain may not have been in the cone of silence and may have had some ability to overhear what the questions were to Obama. He seemed so well prepared."

A McCain aide told Politico that "Senator McCain was in a motorcade led by the United States Secret Service and held in a green room with no broadcast feed."

"Andrea Mitchell is repeating, uncritically, a completely unsubstantiated Obama campaign claim that John McCain somehow cheated in last night's forum at Saddleback Church," Davis wrote in the letter. "Instead of trying to substantiate this blatant falsehood in any way, Andrea Mitchell felt that she needed to repeat it on air to millions of 'Meet the Press' viewers..."

Asked about the criticism, Mitchell said she wasn't expressing an opinion but merely "reporting what they were saying."

UPDATE: Mike Allen writes that "Pastor Rick Warren, in an effort to increase the candidates' comfort level with his pioneering format, gave each of them a heads-up on several of the hardest questions he asked Saturday night."

"A source close to Warren tells Playbook that the candidates knew in advance they would be asked their own greatest moral failure, America's greatest moral failure, and the three wisest people in their lives," writes Allen. "The source said Obama also knew he would be asked if he'd be willing to commit to an emergency plan for orphans, like President Bush has for AIDS."

UPDATE #2: Beliefnet had an interview with Warren after the event. Check out this portion:

BELIEFNET: A source at the debate tells me that McCain had access to some communications devices in the few minutes before he went on stage with you and that there was a monitor in his green room, in violation of the debate rules.

WARREN: That's absolutely a lie, absolutely a lie. That room was totally free, with no monitors--a flat out lie.


Full Rick Davis letter, via Politico, below.

August 17, 2008
Mr. Steve Capus
President, NBC News
30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY 10112

Steve:

We are extremely disappointed to see that the level of objectivity at NBC News has fallen so low that reporters are now giving voice to unsubstantiated, partisan claims in order to undercut John McCain.

Nowhere was this more evident than with NBC chief correspondent Andrea Mitchell's comments on "Meet the Press" this morning. In analyzing last night's presidential forum at Saddleback Church, Mitchell expressed the Obama campaign spin that John McCain could only have done so well last night because he "may not have been in the cone of silence and may have had some ability to overhear what the questions were to Obama." Here are Andrea Mitchell's comments in full:

Mitchell: "The Obama people must feel that he didn't do quite as well as they might have wanted to in that context, because what they are putting out privately is that McCain may not have been in the cone of silence and may have had some ability to overhear what the questions were to Obama. He seemed so well-prepared." (NBC's "Meet The Press," 8/17/08)

Make no mistake: This is a serious charge. Andrea Mitchell is repeating, uncritically, a completely unsubstantiated Obama campaign claim that John McCain somehow cheated in last night's forum at Saddleback Church. Instead of trying to substantiate this blatant falsehood in any way, Andrea Mitchell felt that she needed to repeat it on air to millions of "Meet the Press" viewers with no indication that 1.) There's not one shred of evidence that it's true; 2.) In his official correspondence to both campaigns, Pastor Rick Warren provided both candidates with information regarding the topic areas to be covered, which Barack Obama acknowledged during the forum when asked about Pastor Warren's idea of an emergency plan for orphans and Obama said, "I cheated a little bit. I actually looked at this idea ahead of time, and I think it is a great idea;" 3.) John McCain actually requested that he and Barack Obama do the forum together on stage at the same time, making these kinds of after-the-fact complaints moot.

Indeed, instead of taking a critical journalistic approach to this spin, Andrea Mitchell did what has become a pattern for her of simply repeating Obama campaign talking points.

This is irresponsible journalism and sadly, indicative of the level of objectivity we have witnessed at NBC News this election cycle. Instead of examining the Obama campaign's spin for truth before reporting it to more than 3 million NBC News viewers, Andrea Mitchell simply passed along Obama campaign conspiracy theories. The fact is that during Senator Obama's segment at Saddleback last night, Senator McCain was in a motorcade to the event and then held in a green room with no broadcast feed. In the forum, John McCain clearly demonstrated to the American people that he is prepared to be our next President.....

We are concerned that your News Division is following MSNBC's lead in abandoning non-partisan coverage of the Presidential race. We would like to request a meeting with you as soon as possible to discuss our deep concerns about the news standards and level of objectivity at NBC.

Sincerely,

Rick Davis
Campaign Manager
John McCain 2008