By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 2 -- Sen. John McCain's top campaign strategist accused the news media Tuesday of being "on a mission to destroy" Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin by displaying "a level of viciousness and scurrilousness" in pursuing questions about her personal life.
In an extraordinary and emotional interview, Steve Schmidt said his campaign feels "under siege" by wave after wave of news inquiries that have questioned whether Palin is really the mother of a 4-month-old baby, whether her amniotic fluid had been tested and whether she would submit to a DNA test to establish the child's parentage.
Arguing that the media queries are being fueled by "every rumor and smear" posted on left-wing Web sites, Schmidt said mainstream journalists are giving "closer scrutiny" to McCain's little-known running mate than to Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.
The McCain camp has been unusually aggressive in pushing back against the media, and it seems to hope to persuade journalists to back off in their scrutiny of Palin. Obama campaign officials have complained to news organizations that their man has been subjected to considerably more investigative reporting than McCain has, but they have done so in more low-key fashion.
By contrast, Schmidt spoke on the record in denouncing as "an absolute work of fiction" a New York Times account of the process by which the McCain campaign vetted Palin. He also charged that Newsweek columnist Howard Fineman was predicting that the governor might have to step down as McCain's vice presidential choice.
Fineman said that he has "never, ever said that," and that he has pointed out positive aspects of Palin's candidacy. "They decided a long time ago that they were going to work the refs," he said.
Elisabeth Bumiller, the lead author of the Times report, said she is "completely confident about the story." As for the campaign's criticism, she said: "This is what they do. It's part of their operation."
McCain also canceled a scheduled appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live" on Tuesday in retaliation for an interview a day earlier in which prime-time host Campbell Brown repeatedly pressed campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds to provide one example of a decision that Palin had made as commander of the Alaska National Guard.
"The interview was totally fair," Brown said. "I was trying to get an answer. I was persistent, but I was respectful. That's my job. Experience is a legitimate issue when John McCain raises it about Obama, and it's also legitimate for us to raise it about Palin."
Schmidt, a former spokesman for President Bush and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, talked openly about his frustrations in an interview with The Washington Post. He said the McCain camp is in the middle of the worst media "feeding frenzy" he has ever seen.
The fact that unsubstantiated allegations appear on the Internet "is not a license for smearing" Palin, he said. "The campaign has been inundated by hundreds and hundreds of calls from some of the most respected reporters and news organizations. Many reporters have called the campaign and have apologized for asking the questions and said, 'Our editors are making us do this, and I am ashamed.' "
The intensity of media inquiries hit a new level after an anonymous blogger on the liberal Web site Daily Kos last weekend charged that McCain's running mate is actually the grandmother of Trig Palin, the 4-month-old baby born with Down syndrome, and that the real mother is her daughter, 17-year-old Bristol Palin. That led to mainstream media inquiries, which prompted the McCain camp to disclose in a statement Monday that Bristol is five months pregnant and plans to have the baby and marry the teenage father.
Markos Moulitsas, the site's founder, said he did not know the contributor's identity but thought that the admittedly "weird" pregnancy questions were a legitimate line of inquiry that he should not suppress.
Some journalists, Schmidt said, have demanded to see Trig's birth certificate, or have asked when Palin went into labor and whether her contractions increased or decreased as she traveled from Texas to an Alaskan hospital in her home town, Wasilla. Others, he said, have asked whether Palin's eldest son, Track, who serves in the Army and is deploying to Iraq, is a drug addict. "Categorically false," Schmidt said, adding: "This is crazy."
News organizations routinely ask questions about allegations in an attempt to determine their veracity, and Schmidt did not contend that they were publishing or broadcasting false information about Palin and her family. But he said the media is asking more questions about Palin's pregnant daughter than about Obama's real estate deal with fundraiser Tony Rezko, who recently was convicted on corruption charges. Obama has called that transaction a "boneheaded mistake."
Bloggers on the left and right increasingly drive media coverage by turning up the volume on questions until they are difficult to ignore. Sometimes they are right, as when they questioned what CBS's Dan Rather said were National Guard documents in a 2004 report on President Bush's military service that led to Rather's ouster as the network's anchor. And sometimes they are wrong. Last year, the New Republic retracted a soldier's dispatch on petty wartime cruelty in Iraq, and National Review Online acknowledged that two blog postings by a former Marine about military movements in Lebanon were misleading.
Major newspapers, magazines and networks no longer play their traditional gatekeeper role in the digital age, as was evident during the eight-month period when the National Enquirer was charging former senator John Edwards with fathering an out-of-wedlock baby. Most national news outlets did not report the allegations until last month, when Edwards acknowledged an affair with a former campaign aide but denied being her child's father.
Still, traditional media outlets can amplify and legitimize such reports, which may be why the McCain campaign is fighting so hard to keep the Palin allegations confined to the Internet. Denouncing the news media as biased also plays well with many Republican voters.
Palin has been unavailable to the media since she became McCain's surprise choice Friday, adding to the difficulties for news organizations pursuing stories about her life and career. Campaign manager Rick Davis said it would be unrealistic for her to grant interviews as she prepares for "the most important speech of her life," her acceptance address at the convention here. Schmidt said she will be made available for interviews after the convention, a similar timetable followed by Obama's running mate, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.).
Perhaps the greatest concern to the McCain campaign is that the constant inquiries, amplified by cable television debates over whether a mother with a pregnant daughter and four other children can effectively function as vice president, will create a perception that her nomination is in trouble. "We are being bombarded by e-mails and phone calls from journalists asking when she will be dropping out of the race," Schmidt said.
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."