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Palin & Press: A Testy Start

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 8, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- From the moment Sarah Palin stepped onto the national stage, she was mauled, minimized and manhandled by an openly skeptical media establishment.

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That lasted six days. By Thursday morning, after a speech in which she chided the journalistic elite, the previously obscure governor of Alaska was being hailed by many of the same media gurus.

The media's tattered reputation has not fared as well, not after the frenzy over Palin's mothering skills, her baby and her pregnant teenage daughter. The uproar handed John McCain's team an opening to declare war on the press, his aides fuming over what they see as blatantly biased treatment of their newly anointed hockey mom and her family. Never mind that McCain has been a media darling for a decade, or that he guaranteed a feverish few days by picking a virtual unknown. Press-bashing plays well among Republicans: When Palin told the convention that she wasn't seeking approval from "all those reporters and commentators," some delegates began chanting "NBC! NBC!" and pointing to the television skyboxes.

Serious journalists have written serious pieces attempting to answer fundamental questions about Palin's record in Alaska and what qualifies her to be, in the endlessly repeated cliche, a heartbeat away from the presidency. That, by the way, is our job. It does not mean that journalists are, as Steve Schmidt, McCain's top strategist, told me last week, "on a mission to destroy Sarah Palin."

There is a touch of condescension in the way some pundits have talked about this moose-hunting woman from a distant frontier. But some of the anti-press criticism has been silly. "The elite media has gone after this woman because she didn't go on 'Meet the Press,' because she's from Alaska," former GOP congressman John Kasich said on Fox News. A new form of media bias: anti-Anchorage prejudice?

The descent into tabloid territory is more troubling. When the McCain campaign announced last Monday that 17-year-old Bristol Palin is pregnant, there was no reason to avoid covering it, and it is one heck of a human interest story. But the reason the campaign went public is that national reporters were calling to ask about charges by an anonymous blogger on Daily Kos that the governor faked her own pregnancy and is actually the grandmother of 4-month-old Trig.

Campaign officials were deluged with questions from reputable news outlets about the governor's amniotic fluid, the timing of her contractions and whether she would take a DNA test to establish the baby's parentage, not to mention bogus charges about her son being a drug abuser. There's an important distinction here -- mainstream outlets have not given such rumors any credence -- but that is lost on frustrated McCain aides who have to ask Palin about each new line of inquiry.

When the National Enquirer -- which was, after all, right about John Edwards's extramarital fling -- ran a thinly sourced report last week that Palin once had an affair, mainstream media outlets ignored it until Schmidt distributed a statement denouncing the story as a vicious lie. "The efforts of the media and tabloids to destroy this fine and accomplished public servant are a disgrace," Schmidt said. By lumping "media and tabloids" together, he seemed to suggest that all Palin stories bubble up from the same fetid swamp. (Enquirer Editor in Chief David Perel responded: "Following our John Edwards exclusives, our political reporting has obviously proven to be more detail-oriented than the McCain campaign's vetting process.")

Some GOP strategists say the McCain team has gone too far in attacking the media and that it is not a winning electoral strategy -- noting, for instance, that working the media referees didn't help Hillary Clinton much. But stirring a backlash against the coverage has already fostered sympathy for Palin.

When McCain introduced Palin as his running mate, and again at the convention here, she began by showcasing her five children. She can hardly turn around and argue, then, that her family ought to be totally off-limits. But it doesn't follow that Bristol Palin should be turned into the next Jamie Lynn Spears, to name one teenage mother.

And yet the Palin family has become fodder for celebrity magazines. "Babies, Lies & Scandal," blares the cover of Us Weekly. "The Real Truth About Her Baby Son Trig," says OK! magazine. Who cares whether the former beauty queen is qualified to be veep as long as she provides enough soap opera material?

(And if you think the mainstream press is ignoring the Enquirer allegations, guess again. Politico reports that numerous national journalists have gone to an Alaskan courthouse to examine the divorce file of a Palin friend -- the subject of the rumors -- after he tried to have the papers sealed. The man's ex-wife, by the way, denied to Us Weekly that any affair took place.)


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