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Campaign, and Complaints, Heat Up

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, September 14, 2008

Election frenzy is at full pitch; incoming partisan fire was smoking in my inbox when I returned from a Wyoming hiking trip.

Unsurprisingly, the No. 1 topic was John McCain's running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, a rifle-toting, moose-skinning, snowmobiling, Bible-believing, Alaskan mother of five -- as exotic to this area as Barack Obama's biracial heritage and his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia would be elsewhere.

First, readers complained that an all-Obama front page on Aug. 29, the day after his nomination acceptance speech, wasn't matched by an all-McCain front page on Sept. 5, the day after his speech. Ed Thiede, assistant managing editor for the news desk, said that happened because "Aug. 28 was a day with less news competing for Page 1, while Sept. 4 was a more competitive day."

Then McCain and Palin's large Fairfax County rally was on the Metro section front page Thursday; a June 6 rally for Obama at Nissan Pavilion was on Page A1. Thiede said, "We had a busier day with more competing for A1 play Wednesday, including a main art package commemorating the opening of the Sept. 11 memorial." These are logical answers in a newsroom, but they don't cut it with Republican-leaning readers, especially when, as I've reported, Obama has had a preponderance of Page 1 stories and photos throughout the paper.

Many readers think The Post is trying to skewer Palin. While some opinion writers have, news coverage has not been overtly negative. The Post's duty is to report anything pertinent about Palin -- the least known of the candidates. She did have changing views on Alaska's "Bridge to Nowhere." An item in The Trail political blog overdid it in using the word "slash" to describe her line-item veto of funds for pregnant teenagers; Palin did cut some proposed funds, but, overall, the program got more money.

Speaking of overdoing it, a political cartoon by Pat Oliphant that appeared on washingtonpost.com Wednesday prompted complaints from about 350 readers who said he lampooned their faith. The cartoon showed Palin speaking in tongues, an aspect of worship in some Pentecostal churches, and then God telling St. Peter that he didn't understand what she was saying -- "All I can hear is some dam' right-wing politician spouting gibberish."

Readers were right to complain; I will deal with political cartooning in another column. Political cartoons and comics aren't selected at washingtonpost.com the way they are for The Post in print; they are automatically posted.

Oliphant's Universal Press Syndicate advertises him this way: "No one is safe from the acid brush of Pat Oliphant.. a master of what he calls 'confrontational art' . . . [who] spares neither the liberal nor conservative, sinner nor saint."

Some readers complained that The Post prominently displayed the story reporting the pregnancy of Palin's 17-year-old daughter, Bristol. Yolanda R. Smith of Crofton wrote that "what this has to do with her public persona is beyond me." She said the coverage "reeks of elitism, chauvinism -- after all the only competent woman must be a liberal one." The McCain campaign released the information, and Bristol and her boyfriend were on stage the last night of the convention. That was news.

Last week, most of the complaints were about a story Tuesday by James V. Grimaldi and Karl Vick about per-diem payments that Palin and family members received while living in their home in Wasilla, an Anchorage suburb. Palin goes to the capital in Juneau only during legislative sessions.

Many readers thought it was a non-story; others, like Bill Phelps of Indianapolis, objected to the headline -- "Palin Billed State for Nights Spent at Home" -- and called it, as Phelps did, "inaccurate and misleading, as the article repeatedly emphasizes Gov. Palin acted within the law." The story's third paragraph noted the legality of the payments. It was a legitimate story; the headline was accurate.

Other stories were straightforward -- a Sept. 2 Style piece headlined "Gov. Mom"; a Sept. 7 story on how Palin weaves family and politics; an article Wednesday on how Palin has energized female voters; a Style story Thursday on her local fans. Editorial writer Ruth Marcus wrote a sensitive commentary on how Palin has sparked conversation about balancing motherhood and work.

Glenn Merritt of Vienna thought that TV critic Tom Shales and TV columnist Lisa de Moraes, both of whom are paid to write opinion, took "cheap shots" at Palin's convention speech. Shales said it was filled with "malicious zeal" and was "crudely effective"; he called Obama's convention speech "refreshingly combative." While de Moraes wrote that Palin's speech was "venom-infused," she also wrote it was "electrifying" and "riveting." Chris Cillizza, author of washingtonpost.com's political blog, The Fix, rated her speech No. 1 of all the convention speeches.

The danger in campaign reporting is focusing on the day-to-day events, polls and gaffes and not on what most readers want to know: Who are these people, what do they stand for and how would they govern?

In biography, The Post did an excellent job in special sections by David Maraniss about Obama's parents and his childhood and adolescent years and by Michael Leahy on McCain's Navy family and how it shaped his life. Convention coverage was fair and even.

Still, there's much reporting to be done before Election Day.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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