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Palin & Press: A Testy Start

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.

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.)

Even in higher-rent precincts, many anchors and pundits feel justified in debating Palin's fitness as a mom. CBS's Maggie Rodriguez said: "We've talked this morning about whether a mother of five can handle being the vice president. Who looks after the kids when she's working?"

NBC's Meredith Vieira said: "It seems like the conservatives, who would probably advocate that moms stay home, are backing Governor Palin and a lot of the other working moms are questioning her decision." ( All conservatives want mothers to stay home? Really?)

The Washington Post's Sally Quinn said on CNN last week: "Will she put her country first, or will she put her family first?" Quinn, the mother of a learning-disabled son, says she was premature in judging Palin's political skills but still doubts whether she can juggle the vice presidency, her daughter's baby and an infant with Down syndrome.

Question: Are ambitious male politicians who barely see their families ever called on it by the press? Just asking.

Journalists increasingly dwell in a world of snap judgments. Palin's selection was greeted by this Slate headline: "Huh?" One commentator after another said McCain was throwing a Hail Mary pass.

But after Palin's charismatic speech wowed the country, some of the same journalists began praising the Arizona senator's choice, which Newsweek's Howard Fineman described as one of "accidental brilliance." Perhaps the initial rush to judgment, based on little knowledge of the governor, was less than brilliant.

Despite these stumbles, reporters are now looking under every igloo in Alaska for information that could change perceptions of Palin's record. But she has remained under wraps so far. When Time's Jay Carney, appearing on MSNBC, said Palin needed to answer tough questions, McCain spokeswoman Nicolle Wallace said: "Who cares if she can talk to Time magazine? She can talk to the American people." Talking to the people, in campaign-speak, is code for keeping her far away from anyone with a notepad or camera who might ask her, say, about the turmoil in Pakistan.

But hours after campaign manager Rick Davis told "Fox News Sunday" that Palin will not be exposed to the media's "circle of piranhas," ABC confirmed Sunday that Palin will sit down this week with anchor Charlie Gibson. Perhaps there was a belated realization that a candidate for national office must prove she can handle a grilling on the issues. After all, if Sarah Palin can kill a caribou, how tough can it be to tame the media elite?

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