By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 2008 1:19 PM
MINNEAPOLIS, Sept. 3 -- I've talked to many political professionals over the years who were mad at the media, or me in particular.
But I've never quite had a conversation like the one Tuesday night with Steve Schmidt.
He was absolutely furious as he unloaded on the journalistic community for, in his view, unfairly savaging Sarah Palin.
Sure, it is in his interest to try to get the press to tone things down. But Schmidt -- a hard-headed, no-nonsense, on-message strategist -- really sounded shell-shocked. And so he was saying things on the record that senior aides usually say only under a cloak of anonymity.
That doesn't make his accusations right. But it does suggest to me that a brewing conflict between McCain and his media chroniclers -- one that makes the ol' Straight Talk Express days a distant memory -- has reached the boiling point. And that there are gender and cultural issues swirling around Palin's nomination that would have created conflict even without the added complication of her daughter's pregnancy.
Let's get straight to the news:
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.
The lead author of the Times report, Elisabeth Bumiller, 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.
The site's founder, Markos Moulitsas, 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 might 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.
One final thought: There is more of a distinction than Schmidt is willing to grant between asking and publishing. I remember Marcia Kramer of New York's WCBS-TV telling me how sheepish she felt calling Eliot Spitzer's office and asking about a tip that the governor had patronized prostitutes. Days later, he was gone. Sometimes you have to ask the question. But we in the media have to be careful that we don't overplay our hand on the Palin situation.
If your media diet hasn't reached the saturation point, check out my piece on a secret meeting of Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch and Barack Obama.
The Republican convention is only halfway over, and complaints about the press are rising, as the L.A. Times reports:
"Delegates to the Republican National Convention whirled in their seats en masse and called out from the floor: 'Tell the truth! Tell the truth!' The chants and finger-wagging were directed toward the sky boxes. Their target: the television networks and the rest of the 'liberal mainstream media.'
"It happened 20 years ago, as the GOP gathered in New Orleans, Times political writer Mark Z. Barabak recalled this week. But the scene could have come from the convention floor Tuesday in St. Paul, where the Republican faithful began working out once again on a favorite punching bag. Their goal: to lessen the burden on Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, five election cycles after the media were lambasted because it dared to question the credentials of another would-be vice president, Dan Quayle. The GOP deployed its principal spokespeople, elected officials, delegates and cable television surrogates with one essential message: Mess with our gal, Sarah, or her pregnant 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, and we will mess with you."
"The culture wars are making a sudden and unexpected encore in American politics, turning more ferocious virtually by the hour as activists on both sides of the ideological divide react to the addition of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin to the Republican ticket . . .
"The selection of Palin -- a new heroine of social conservatives -- has helped reignite not only abortion but also other flash-point issues in a way few of McCain's other vice presidential options would have done. Conservatives see her as a kindred spirit who lives her anti-abortion words in the most profound way: by giving birth to a child she knew would be born with Down syndrome. Gun owners see her as authentically one of them: a hunter with a passion for the outdoors and gun freedom.
"Social liberals agree -- and are proving just as ready for combat on issues that many operatives and analysts believed would have less relevance in an Obama-McCain campaign."
Here's more on how teed off the McCain team is, from the Huffington Post:
"In a recent email to the press, McCain spokesman Brian Rogers wrote: 'All: I know that the Obama campaign is pushing around many false attacks on Governor Palin, and wanted to make sure you had the facts. The allegations that Gov. Palin was a member of Alaska Independence Party are false. She's never been a member of the Alaska Independence Party. Gov. Palin has been a registered Republican ever since 1982, as the records attached show. It would be nice if the media outlets covering this garbage actually did their due diligence in reporting, and didn't just push Obama campaign/Daily Kos smears.' "
Uh-oh: "Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential nominee who revealed Monday that her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant, earlier this year used her line-item veto to slash funding for a state program benefiting teen mothers in need of a place to live."
The depth of the culture war should be apparent from this New Republic essay by Alan Wolfe:
"Sarah Palin's nomination is a public service. No longer will we hear lectures from the likes of Newt Gingrich telling poor women on welfare how to conduct their sex lives. Focus on the Family will have to focus on a different kind of family. William Bennett has no virtues left to write about. At long last our national nightmare over sexual hypocrisy has come to an end, and we can all thank John McCain for that.
"And that is not all. In rushing to Sarah Palin's defense, the leaders of the Christian right have made it abundantly clear how they define a Christian. We don't care if you sin. We are not bothered if you put your ambition ahead of the needs of your children. If you have lied or broken the law, we will look the other way. It all comes down to your stand on guns and fetuses. Vote the right way, and you have our blessing. If any proof were needed that James Dobson is a political operative rather than a spiritual leader, his jumping on the Palin bandwagon offers it."
While praising Obama and Biden for declaring Palin's kids off-limits, National Review is disgusted with the MSM:
"The New York Times's webpage on Tuesday led with no fewer than three stories about Bristol Palin's pregnancy. CNN has tried to exploit Miss Palin as a laboratory specimen for a high-profile examination of sex-education. MSNBC and the Huffington Post are titillating viewers with exposes on Miss Palin's boyfriend. Slate, owned by the Washington Post, is running a 'Name Bristol Palin's Baby' contest. US Weekly has 'Babies, Lies, and Scandal' on its cover.
"But unsavory as all this is, it can't hold a candle to Andrew Sullivan. Once a respectable journalist, The Atlantic's self-declared champion of respect for privacy and of civil discourse now obsesses over Miss Palin, airing baseless and abhorrent questions about the motherhood of Trig, Gov. Palin's infant son, born this year with Down syndrome. One wonders if David Bradley bought The Atlantic -- a venerable institution that once published Mark Twain and Martin Luther King -- so that he could associate it with the most despicable ravings of the left-wing blogosphere. What price in reputation is Bradley willing to pay for increased unique-visitor numbers from among the fever swamps?
"When Al Gore's son was arrested on narcotics and speeding charges in 2007, moreover, the national press was a model of sympathetic restraint. The muted coverage was devoid of calls for a national "teaching moment" on drug abuse or responsible driving. The message was plain and correct: No news here, move along. The Republican base and other people of good will are angry over this grotesque display. It is obvious what the media and Democrats are up to here. They want to define Sarah Palin as a failure before she even has a chance to succeed."
By the way, the McCain camp denies ABC's report that Palin was once a member of the Alaska Independence Party, although she did speak at its 2000 convention.
Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."