By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 5, 2008
ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 4 -- Dennis Prager was on the air last week on the day Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was named to the Republican ticket, and without missing a beat, the conservative radio host pronounced her "an American Margaret Thatcher."
Her speech to the convention, Prager said Thursday during a break in his program, "just reconfirmed my love at first sight." Across the table, Sen. Orrin Hatch was slipping on the headphones to join him and immediately went on offense when he went on the air.
"I've really been offended by how the mainstream media have tried to smear her by attacking, in essence, her daughter," the Utah Republican said. "It was pathetic. It was hitting below the belt. It was despicable."
In a long corridor leading into the Xcel Energy Center that is packed with radio broadcasters, a new narrative about the presidential election was emerging rather noisily, at least among those on the right who make their living in front of microphones. Many conservative hosts, who had been downright skeptical of Sen. John McCain and his unorthodox brand of Republicanism, are ecstatic about Palin -- all the more so because her nomination helps them strafe their favorite target.
From the titans of talk -- Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham -- to conservative hosts who loom large in their local markets, the cheering for Palin has been nearly unanimous. Ingraham praised her assault on the "entrenched elites." Men on the right who were quick to dismiss charges of sexism against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton now accuse Palin's critics of treating her, as a mother of five, with undisguised contempt.
When Palin took her swipe at "those reporters and commentators," it provided fresh ammunition for the radio shock troops who decry media bias every hour or so. As if on cue, they are defending Palin's brief public record by contrasting it unfavorably with that of Democratic nominee Barack Obama, who they say has gotten an easy ride from news organizations.
"I've never seen the mainstream media act against anyone like this," says New York radio host Steve Malzberg, who admits he had never heard of Palin before last Saturday. He accused reporters of posing "asinine" questions about Palin's personal life. Malzberg and other hosts noted that CNN's Larry King had asked a guest, "Do you think that the governor is using her children in a way? I mean, she has these five children, one has Down syndrome, one is pregnant, and parading them all onstage?"
The cable chatter has also aggravated Boston radio host Michael Graham. "When did the commentators at MSNBC and CNN start channeling their inner Phyllis Schlafly?" he asked. "It's been one step away from 'Woman, why aren't you home, pregnant and chained to an oven making biscuits?' I am open-mouth stunned. They are beyond the pale. I hate to call it sexism, but it certainly sounds like sexism."
Syndicated host Blanquita Cullum says her listeners adore Palin. "The groundswell from the public is going to be, 'Don't pick on our Sarah,' " Cullum said. "She's like Annie Oakley saying, 'Go ahead and try to mess with me. You better get out of the way, because I know how to shoot, and I don't miss!' " Some of the news coverage over the past week has involved Palin's record as a governor and small-town mayor, her position on various issues and an investigation of her role in a personnel controversy involving her former brother-in-law. But conservative radio talkers, with their sizable megaphone, have focused their contempt on stories about the pregnancy of Palin's 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, although that was reported only after the McCain campaign released the news on Monday. At the same time, many pundits have been debating how the vice presidential nominee can balance motherhood and campaigning, prompting complaints that such questions are rarely asked about male candidates.
Liberal hosts, a minority in talk radio, are pushing back against the other side's onslaught. While questions about Palin's parenting abilities are "stupid and idiotic," said Chicago radio host Roland S. Martin, "it's legitimate to criticize her on public policy, because she believed in funding for abstinence-only programs, but she did not believe in funding for sex education. Abstinence-only didn't work in her household."
Beyond that, Martin said, "it's legitimate to question who she is, what she's done, whether she's ready to be number two, and part of that is because John McCain is 72 years old."
Syndicated host Ed Schultz called the charges of sexism "bogus," saying the cultural conversation is being driven by ordinary folks. "My women callers are posing the question, 'Is Sarah Palin putting her family first, with a 4-month-old baby with Down syndrome and a pregnant daughter?' That's the water-cooler talk. The McCain campaign has cleverly taken that conversation and tried to turn it into a talking point that everyone's against us."
If that is the campaign's message, it is being amplified by the likes of Limbaugh and Hannity, who have taken the criticism of Palin's meager government experience and used it as a bludgeon against Obama. She has run a state, the refrain goes; what has he ever managed?
"I don't even think Obama is half the man Sarah Palin is, in terms of achievement, toughness, grit and down in the trenches," Limbaugh told listeners.
"She has had to withstand more scrutiny, more scurrilous attacks . . . than he has had to withstand as the candidate himself," Hannity said.
But Graham said that sometime in the next two months, Palin could make a major mistake. "She's a hand grenade," he said. "She's going to blow someone up. We just don't know if it's Barack Obama or John McCain."