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GOP 'Gotcha Journalism' Charges Throw Spotlight on Debate

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 2, 2008

For days now, television viewers have watched Sarah Palin unable to explain the significance of her home state's bordering Russia, unable to name a Supreme Court ruling she disagrees with, unable to name a single newspaper she reads.

Her halting, unfocused answers in a series of interviews with Katie Couric have left an unmistakable question hanging in the air before tonight's vice presidential debate: Is Palin going to fall on her face?

Even as some conservative commentators have panned her performances and fretted about how the Alaska governor will fare against Sen. Joe Biden, Palin has challenged the ethics of those interviewing her. Her running mate, John McCain, has complained about "gotcha journalism." And a top campaign official says female journalists are being especially mean to Palin.

All this may or may not add up to a stab at the age-old technique of preemptive spin.

Nicolle Wallace, a senior McCain adviser, maintained that Palin is connecting with voters, despite the "mixed reviews" for her sit-downs with CBS's Couric and ABC's Charlie Gibson.

"We didn't expect anyone to treat her as a cream puff because she's a girl," Wallace said. But, she added, "I'm shocked personally at how brutal many of the women in the media have been." Wallace pointed to CNN anchor Campbell Brown, who urged the campaign to arrange more interviews for Palin and stop treating her "like a delicate flower who will wilt at any moment."

Some of Palin's occasionally rambling responses to Couric have been used verbatim in Tina Fey's "Saturday Night Live" send-up. In an interview Tuesday with conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt, Palin, a former sports reporter, said: "I have a degree in journalism also, so it surprises me that so much has changed since I received my education in journalistic ethics all those years ago." She said she would "take those shots and those pop quizzes" in stride.

But most of the questions have been straightforward. In an exchange last night that was replayed on several networks, Couric, after a question about Roe v. Wade, asked Palin what other Supreme Court decisions she disagreed with.

"Well, let's see," Palin said, smiling and stalling for time. "There's -- of course -- in the great history of America rulings there have been rulings, that's never going to be absolute consensus by every American. And there are -- those issues, again, like Roe v. Wade where I believe are best held on a state level and addressed there. So you know -- going through the history of America, there would be others but --"

Asked again, Palin answered without naming a ruling. Surprisingly, she failed to mention the court's June decision to slash the punitive damages awarded to those whose livelihoods were affected by the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, which Palin denounced at the time.

In another widely replayed exchange:

COURIC: What newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this -- to stay informed and to understand the world?

PALIN: I've read most of them again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media --

COURIC: But what ones specifically? I'm curious.

PALIN: Um, all of them, any of them that have been in front of me over all these years.

COURIC: Can you name any of them?

PALIN: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news.

McCain, joining Palin for one of the Couric interviews, said it was "gotcha journalism" for television to replay an answer she gave a restaurant customer on the campaign trail over the weekend. Palin said she favored U.S. attacks in Pakistan from across the border in Afghanistan, contradicting McCain's position.

Palin's debate against Biden, a 35-year Senate veteran, is drawing unprecedented attention. She has become the culturally polarizing force at the heart of the presidential campaign, at times overshadowing the top-of-the-ticket men.

"This is shaping up to be the event of the election," said Ryan Lizza, the New Yorker's Washington correspondent. He offered a blunt explanation: "We're at war, the economy is in collapse, and John McCain picked someone who by most objective measures is not qualified to be president if he dies -- and he's a 72-year-old who's had cancer. It's the shock factor."

Kathryn Jean Lopez, editor of National Review Online, dismissed the attacks, saying: "Liberal feminists are really ticked off that there's an attractive, pro-life feminist who's taken the nation by storm." A woman like that, "who also hunts moose and takes on corruption in our most remote state, is foreign to a lot of Northeastern media types." But even Lopez called Palin's initial outings with Couric "disturbing."

Geneva Overholser, director of the Annenberg communication school at the University of Southern California, called the CBS interviews "one of those awful things to watch -- someone thrust into the national limelight and it begins to look as if we might be watching a frightening act of failure."

For the news business, Palin has become a bankable star. She is the most searched term on the New York Times Web site for the last 30 days. Her Wikipedia page drew 6 million visits last month, three times as many as McCain's or Barack Obama's. On YouTube, videos of Fey spoofing Palin have been viewed more than 4.5 million times. And footage of Palin's swimsuit walk in the 1984 Miss Alaska competition has been viewed 680,000 times in the last few days.

Newsweek has done two cover stories featuring Palin; Time has done one. Gibson's interviews with Palin boosted his evening newscast and a "20/20" special to No. 1.

Veep nominees have been embroiled in controversy before. Richard Nixon saved his place on Dwight Eisenhower's ticket with his 1952 "Checkers" speech, invoking his dog while trying to explain away a slush fund. Thomas Eagleton was dumped 18 days after George McGovern picked him in 1972 over revelations that he had received electroshock therapy for mental illness. Geraldine Ferraro spent weeks trying to explain her husband's tangled finances when she became the first woman named to a national ticket in 1984. Four years later, Dan Quayle was portrayed as an inexperienced nominee dogged by questions about his National Guard service.

Some Palin boosters have mounted a "let Sarah be Sarah" drive, arguing that McCain strategists have cosseted her, making her look like a nervous college student cramming for a big oral exam. But Wallace says Palin will do more interviews, including one with the third network anchor, NBC's Brian Williams. "We have no hesitance about putting her in front of as many people as possible," Wallace says.

The latest controversy to hit the echo chamber came yesterday as a conservative Web site challenged the fairness of tonight's moderator, PBS's Gwen Ifill, for writing a book about Barack Obama and other rising black politicians, even though the book project has long been public.

Ifill's forthcoming book, "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama," was mentioned in a Sept. 4 Washington Post article. WorldNetDaily.com, in criticism that was picked up by the Drudge Report and Rush Limbaugh, questioned whether the book would be "pro-Obama" and undermine her fairness as moderator.

"The book has been out there and discussed for months," PBS spokeswoman Anne Bell said. "It's a non-issue." (World Net is offering its readers a $4.95 book titled "The Audacity of Deceit: Obama's War on American Values.")

Ifill moderated the 2004 debate between Vice President Cheney and John Edwards, and if that is any indication, she will ask both candidates hard, detailed questions. McCain told Fox News yesterday: "I think that Gwen Ifill is a professional, and I think she will do a totally objective job because she is a highly respected professional."

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

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