By Tom Shales
Saturday, September 13, 2008
For ABC anchor Charlie Gibson, it was almost a no-win situation, yet he came out of it not losing. Gibson's interviews with Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin -- who had been carefully sheltered from the media previously -- would have been criticized if he'd seemed too gentle, and yet attacked from other quarters if he'd seemed too tough. So he tried to be both and neither -- a very iffy trick.
Usually likable and personable on-screen, Gibson seemed uncharacteristically pompous during part of the first interview, excerpts from which aired on "ABC World News" on Thursday. But in subsequent sessions with Palin, he was his old chummy self.
Regardless of how one feels about Gibson's technique, he definitely scored a hit in the ratings. "NBC Nightly News" with Brian Williams usually wins the three-network evening news race, but Thursday, ABC's newscast beat NBC's by more than 2 million viewers (9.73 million to 7.5 million, with CBS trailing at 6.1 million), according to quickie Nielsen numbers.
Seated opposite the Alaskan governor in the tiny town of Wasilla (of which she was once mayor), Gibson sometimes appeared pretentious and imperial, and asked many questions in a low, grumbling mumble. With his glasses pushed down near the end of his nose, he looked like a professor questioning a student, trying to trip her up -- which he did when he asked Palin whether she concurred with "the Bush doctrine." She clearly didn't know what it was. "In what respect, Charlie?" she asked. "Well, what do you interpret it to be?" he shot back. She fumbled about.
In a reaction clip yesterday, Democratic strategist James Carville clucked, "I'm not surprised that she didn't know."
Somewhat condescendingly, Gibson explained to Palin that the Bush doctrine has to do with "anticipatory defense" and the use of a "preemptive strike" against a potentially hostile power. Palin also had trouble with a hypothetical question about Israel using missiles on Iran. Three times, she gave the same evasive answer.
In the second of their three interviews, Gibson appeared more relaxed and definitely less professorial. He and Palin were seen chatting as they walked along the Alaska oil pipeline. Excerpts aired on ABC's "Nightline" on Thursday, scoring ratings that beat David Letterman on CBS and Jay Leno on NBC ("Nightline" often scores higher ratings, especially in the 25-to-54 demographic, than Letterman does).
In the third interview, aired last night on "World News" and on "20/20" and "Nightline," Gibson was persistent with his questioning but more like his old self in demeanor, suggesting that maybe he was just cranky in the first session. He and Palin talked in her home this time, discussing abortion (she's against it), stem-cell research (against it), gun control (against it), homosexuality ("not one to judge"), the economy, and whether it was "sexist" to ask if a woman could raise a family and be vice president at the same time.
"Of course you can be the vice president and raise a family," Palin said, without taking umbrage. "I'm the governor and raise a family."
When Gibson brought up congressional "earmarks" tucked away in legislation, Palin knew where he was going and herself brought up the "Bridge to Nowhere," an Alaska project she initially supported, then opposed. Gibson was resolute but not rude.
Palin even had a kind word for Hillary Rodham Clinton, who resides in another part of the political spectrum, saying of her, "What determination and grit and even grace."
Gibson went into the interview sessions with something of a dark cloud over his head. Palin has been so fastidiously guarded by party bosses and hacks, it was almost insulting for Gibson to be chosen by them as the journalist to be granted the first major TV interview. There was the implication, however unfair, that they felt Gibson would be less rigorous a questioner than NBC's Williams or CBS anchor Katie Couric or, of course, anybody from "60 Minutes."
Of all the anchors, Gibson seems most to embody the sort of homespun, Middle American values of which Palin is supposedly the living embodiment; that could be another reason he got the nod.
Meanwhile, many reporters don't want to be seen as beating up on Palin because she is a woman -- and, like Obama, a "rock star" in pop culture (an overnight sensation as well). There doesn't seem to be overwhelming bipartisan outrage that a woman seeking an office one proverbial heartbeat away from being Leader of the Free World has been carefully sheltered from appearances not under party control -- the kind of behavior that might earn a male candidate with less charisma widespread denunciation and suspicion.
The McCain campaign dismissed any Palin missteps in the interviews as being the result of attempted sandbagging by the media. Palin did nothing to disgrace herself in these interviews, but there were definitely troubling things about her presentation. Glib and articulate, she also came across as cold and the polar opposite of contemplative or reflective.
She talked about nuclear retaliation as matter-of-factly as if discussing moose hunting or what's on TV tonight. Contributors to some blogs and Web sites yesterday said they found her "scary" or even "frightening," but then she'd hardly be the only scary or frightening thing about the 2008 campaigns. Just one more for the list.