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'Substantive' Press Is Taken for a Spin

As the McCain team rushed out a Web ad featuring Obama repeatedly saying McCain was right about this or that, Fox's Sean Hannity, MSNBC's Chris Matthews and other TV hosts picked up the point -- a twist that left Obama press secretary Linda Douglass shaking her head.

"I can't believe that anyone is criticizing someone, in this hyperpartisan environment, for being gracious enough to acknowledge where there are areas of agreement," the former ABC correspondent said. "I find it surprising that journalists would be raising questions about a candidate who is capable of acknowledging that his opponent has a point."

Then she pivoted to how Obama had won a "commanding victory" on "John McCain's home turf."

Palin Gets Panned

Sarah Palin has been struggling in her own debates -- with network anchors. While the Alaska governor hardly drew rave reviews for her interview with Charlie Gibson, her sit-down with Katie Couric last week opened the floodgates of criticism, even from conservatives.

Palin was halting, repetitive and occasionally stumped on basic questions. And the worst moments -- boasting again, Tina Fey-like, of Alaska's proximity to Russia -- have been endlessly replayed on other networks and the Web.

It may have been a turning point for Couric, who was persistent without being overbearing, in shedding early doubts about her ability to be a commanding presence in the CBS anchor chair. And the worst may be yet to come for Palin; sources say CBS has two more responses on tape that will likely prove embarrassing.

While some journalists say privately they are censoring their comments about Palin to avoid looking like they're piling on, pundits on the right are jumping ship. MSNBC's Joe Scarborough says Palin "just seems out of her league." National Review Editor Rich Lowry called her performance "dreadful." Dallas Morning News columnist Rod Dreher described the interview as a "train wreck." Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker urged Palin to quit the race, saying: "If BS were currency, Palin could bail out Wall Street herself."

The interview is drawing extraordinary attention because of the McCain campaign's calculated decision to shield Palin from reporters. No vice-presidential nominee in modern history has been this inaccessible to the media, reinforcing the perception that she can't hit major-league pitching. When the networks balked at recording Palin's photo ops with foreign leaders at the U.N. last week unless journalists were allowed in -- and a CNN producer was granted access for all of 29 seconds -- the no-press dictum degenerated into farce.

Palin was buoyed for weeks by negative and sometimes unfair coverage, particularly about her family situation, that turned her into a sympathetic figure. But the Couric and Gibson interviews were the first real test of whether she could do more than read a punchy speech off a prompter. And even many of her supporters are no longer trying to spin her performance.

Not Too Bright

The rhetoric gets heated this time of year, but Paul Begala, the CNN commentator, went way over the line in calling President Bush a "high-functioning moron."

The former Bill Clinton aide can be a witty partisan, but there are 50 ways he could have ridiculed Bush's capacity to govern without using such a slur. Begala, though, is undeterred: "I said it. I meant it. I don't regret it. . . . You cannot imagine the positive feedback I've gotten."

Howard Kurtz hosts CNN's weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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