By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 8, 2008 10:29 AM
ST. PAUL -- 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 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 pick a teenage mother at random.
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, 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 "piranhas," ABC confirmed yesterday 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 that 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?
Now for some other voices. Andrew Sullivan was really getting worked up before Palin agreed to an interview yesterday:
"This is incredible, totally incredible. A vice presidential candidate isn't going to be available to the press for two weeks? Two weeks? In September. We have this total unknown who could be president of the United States next January. And she's in hiding for two weeks. Chris Matthews on this clip says that this is fine. Has he lost his mind? She needs to be in front of the press now. The United States and the world cannot have this total unknown foisted on the presidency without any serious vetting and without any press interaction. This is absolutely third world. Since when is the governor of a state given two weeks in hiding?
"The sexism that implies that someone cannot stand up to reporters because she is a woman is appalling. This entire pick, of course, is incredibly sexist, and the handling of her in the last week the most sexist double standard I have ever seen in American politics. Can you imagine Hillary Clinton saying she wasn't going to answer questions for two weeks? Or Margaret Thatcher? Or Kay Bailey Hutchison? Or Elizabeth Dole?"
Well, this week we'll find out whether she's ready.
Bill Kristol is sweet on Sarah:
"Thank you, John McCain. He showed guts with his pick of Sarah Palin. He also demonstrated a shrewd strategic sense. He knew that running on experience would carry him only so far -- most likely to a respectable defeat. He understood the implications of Obama's passing over Hillary -- not that Clinton voters would vote for McCain-Palin (though if even a few do so, it could make a difference), but that his pick of Palin when compared with Obama's shying away from Hillary would show McCain as a bolder and more confident leader . . .
"Special thank you to our friends in the liberal media establishment. Who knew they would come through so spectacularly? The ludicrous media feeding frenzy about the Palin family hyped interest in her speech, enabling her to win a huge audience for her smashing success Wednesday night at the convention. Indeed, it even renewed interest in McCain, who seems to have gotten still more viewers for his less smashing -- but well-received -- presentation the following evening.
"The astounding (even to me, after all these years!) smugness and mean-spiritedness of so many in the media engendered not just interest in but sympathy for Palin. It allowed Palin to speak not just to conservatives but to the many Americans who are repulsed by the media's prurient interest in and adolescent snickering about her family. It allowed the McCain-Palin ticket to become the populist standard-bearer against an Obama-Media ticket that has disdain for Middle America."
Smugness, maybe. But mean-spirited?
Not a word about her experience, I notice. But Charles Krauthammer doesn't let her off that particular hook:
"Palin is an admirable and formidable woman. She has energized the Republican base and single-handedly unified the Republican convention behind McCain. She performed spectacularly in her acceptance speech. Nonetheless, the choice of Palin remains deeply problematic.
"It's clear that McCain picked her because he had decided that he needed a game-changer. But why? He'd closed the gap in the polls with Obama. True, that had more to do with Obama sagging than McCain gaining. But what's the difference? You win either way.
"Obama was sagging because of missteps that reflected the fundamental weakness of his candidacy. Which suggested McCain's strategy: Make this a referendum on Obama, surely the least experienced, least qualified, least prepared presidential nominee in living memory.
"Palin fatally undermines this entire line of attack. This is through no fault of her own. It is simply a function of her rookie status. The vice president's only constitutional duty of any significance is to become president at a moment's notice. Palin is not ready. Nor is Obama. But with Palin, the case against Obama evaporates."
A Newsweek profile frames some of the questions we'll be hearing more about:
"Alaska's young governor is as riven with contradictions and complexities as the state itself. A devoted mother, Palin is now running for national office, exposing her young family to the warping effects of international scrutiny. A reformer, she faces allegations of exerting improper influence in city and state government. A self-styled regular Red State gal, she is relentlessly driven, a politician of epic ambition who is running against a Washington establishment that, if elected, she will inevitably join, and even rule over.
"Her sense of personal mission may be rooted in her religious upbringing. She was raised in a tradition that tended to emphasize an intimate connection with God, through the Holy Spirit -- a tradition that puts the believer at the center of the spiritual drama, in direct communion with the Lord."
Palin appears to have a very, ah, personal style of governing, according to this WashPost piece, with her husband Todd sitting in on key meetings:
"When Todd's stepmother, Faye Palin, ran in 2002 for the mayoral job Palin was vacating, the incumbent withheld her endorsement. Locals noted that her mother-in-law supported abortion rights.
"And last year she fired her top legislative aide, John Britney, after he confessed to an affair with the wife of a friend of Todd's."
Clearly a bad career move.
LAT: "Some lawmakers were so perplexed by her absence from a recent debate over sending oil rebate checks to Alaskans, for example, that they sported buttons at the state Capitol reading 'Where's Sarah?' "
The Boston Globe's Joan Vennochi doesn't see Hillary voters flocking her way:
"Taking a page from the Clinton campaign handbook, the first-term governor of Alaska and former mayor of Wasilla skillfully turned the criticism into a sexist attack by Washington elites.
"It worked in the convention hall. But once the novelty of Palin's candidacy begins to rub off, she still must answer for her weak resume and right-wing ideology.
"And how long can she play the attack dog, before reminding voters of that famous Barbara Bush assessment of Geraldine Ferraro: 'rhymes with rich'? . . .
"Despite the bravado, it's hard to see how Palin's beliefs attract a critical mass of core Clinton backers. Palin opposes abortion. She's a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association. She was for pork before she was against it. She describes the war in Iraq as 'a task from God.' And those are just the highlights of a political agenda that resonates strongly with evangelicals."
Hillary campaigns, but doesn't say much about Palin.
Jeremiah Wright praises Obama from the pulpit -- and somehow I don't think it's going to help.
Finally, now that the conventions are over, MSNBC has reversed course and agreed with critics who say that Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews shouldn't anchor live political events.