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In Search of Reality

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 27, 2008 12:37 PM

On Fox News last week, Sean Hannity said he was tempted to ask Barack Obama: "Where did you buy your cocaine, how much cocaine? How much cocaine did you use? How often did you use it? When did you stop?"

On the same Monday night, Keith Olbermann said on MSNBC that John McCain had a responsibility "to say 'enough' to Republican smears without end" and not be "party to a campaign that devolves into hatred and prejudice and divisiveness."

Are these guys watching the same presidential race, or even living in the same country?

Obama recently questioned whether voters are "seeing two different realities, a Sean Hannity reality and a Keith Olbermann reality." He went on to tell the New York Times Magazine that he is "portrayed 24-7" on Fox News "as a freak." McCain recently joked that Olbermann belongs in a "padded room," and his campaign has denounced MSNBC as a Democratic Party organ.

Hyperbole aside, the Democratic nominee has a point. Prime-time viewers of Fox News and MSNBC get vastly different perspectives on the campaign that sometimes approach mirror images. This goes well beyond the hosts' political views to the booking of guests and the way stories are framed, pumped up and sometimes ignored. In that sense, the programs reflect the increasing polarization of the media world, where columnists, strategists, bloggers and radio talkers have built thriving careers catering to those who already agree with them.

As high-profile hosts adored by fans and derided by critics, Hannity and Olbermann provide a case study in the power of ideological punditry.

Olbermann, who frequently rips Hannity and Fox, said by e-mail: "There is no Sean Hannity reality," and boasted that his 8 p.m. show twice finished first in cable news in the coveted 25-to-54 demo last week. (Even so, the show finishes far behind "The O'Reilly Factor" in total viewers.) Hannity generally ignores Olbermann on his 9 p.m. program, which finishes first among cable news shows, and Fox Senior Vice President Bill Shine says the views of Hannity and liberal co-host Alan Colmes are no secret.

"We try very, very hard to keep it fair and keep it balanced," Shine says. Hannity "is balanced out every night by Alan and by other guests."

They are a study in contrasts: Olbermann specializes in satire and irony, while Hannity favors bluntness and repetition. But their sympathies are unmistakable. In the past two weeks, while defending McCain, Hannity has said of Obama:

· "Obama, when given an opportunity to cut taxes, he raised them 94 times."

· "He hasn't been honest about [William] Ayers . . . He sat there 20 years and didn't know about [Jeremiah] Wright. He hasn't been honest and truthful about ACORN and his real associations. . . . Does he have the judgment, if you have 20-year relationship with these radical groups?" Hannity constantly criticizes Obama's past contacts with Ayers, the former Weathermen bomber; Wright, Obama's former pastor; and ACORN, the community group under investigation for voter registration fraud.

· "Why isn't the country, according to the polls, paying more attention to these, frankly, naive, reckless, dangerous and irresponsible positions of a guy that has literally no experience?"

During the same period, while defending Obama, Olbermann has said:

· "Senator McCain responding to these repeated calls for violence by his supporters not by denouncing them, but by attacking Obama."

· "While your campaign has tried to paint Senator Obama as elitist, Senator McCain . . . here's your running mate. . . . This is the hockey mom, connected to the small towns where the real Americans are. Strugglin' and scrimpin' on what's workin' out to be a clothin' budget of $18,000 a week."

· "Senator, Joe the Plumber is going into the toilet and he's taking you with him. . . . America probably can't survive four more years of government by the Republican Party."

Hannity also has a history of attending fundraisers for GOP candidates. "Hannity is a partisan Republican guy, but he doesn't make any bones about that," says his Fox colleague Bill O'Reilly. In her third interview with Hannity last week, Sarah Palin called him a "fun guy."

On "Hannity & Colmes," Hannity often runs roughshod over his co-host. The program regularly includes liberal guests, but those most heavily featured -- who always appear by themselves -- are former White House adviser Karl Rove, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and former strategist Dick Morris, the author with his wife of "Fleeced: How Barack Obama [and assorted others] Are Scamming Us." Olbermann wrote in a book last year that "I'm frequently accused of being a liberal or a flack for the Democratic Party. And it's true that the vast majority of my commentary over these past few years has targeted Republicans." He has relentlessly attacked the man he calls "McSame," and last week began delivering nightly what had been only occasional commentaries.

On "Countdown," Olbermann almost never books conservative guests. Each night he interviews one or two journalists, who provide a more balanced perspective. But he devotes more time to such liberals as the Nation's Christopher Hayes, former John Edwards spokesman Chris Kofinis, Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, Washington Post columnist Gene Robinson and Air America's Rachel Maddow, whose MSNBC show now follows his. Obama strategist David Axelrod appeared last week.

Each host has pitched softballs to his preferred candidate. On Sept. 8, Olbermann asked Obama: "Have you thought of using, on the campaign trail and in your speaking engagements, more exclamation points? Have you thought of getting angrier?"

On Oct. 8, Hannity asked McCain and Palin: "Do you really believe that Senator Obama is prepared to be president of the United States? . . . Is he being dishonest, not truthful with the American people? . . . Should the American people be concerned that he's capable in a post-9/11 world of fighting terrorism when he is friends with an unrepentant terrorist?"

An early October edition of his weekend show, "Hannity's America," was built around Andy Martin, a conservative writer who maintains an anti-Obama Web site. Martin said on the show that Obama's community-organizing work in Chicago was "training for a radical overthrow of the government." The onetime political candidate has a history of making controversial statements. In a 1983 personal bankruptcy case, according to the Chicago Tribune, he referred to a judge as a "crooked, slimy Jew" and described Holocaust survivors in a filing as "operating as a wolf pack." Martin has denied holding anti-Semitic views.

The program drew a blast from Olbermann, who called it "Stalinist," "desperate," "panicky" and based on "a transparent nut job."

Fox, which initially defended the show, now expresses regret for booking Martin, who was interviewed by a producer. Shine says Hannity disagrees with some of Martin's past comments. "Having that guy on was a mistake," Shine says. "We obviously didn't do enough research on who the guest was."

Those who tune in to Hannity or Olbermann know what they're getting. Both men are talented and entertaining broadcasters. But they are so determined to play to their base that the broader reality can be hard to discern.

Missing the Point

Byron York's National Review article began: "Watching press coverage of the Republican candidate for vice president, it's sometimes hard to decide whether Sarah Palin is incompetent, stupid, unqualified, corrupt, backward, or -- or, well, all of the above." York then offered a positive appraisal of her record as governor.

But when CNN correspondent Drew Griffin interviewed Palin last Tuesday, he told her: "The National Review had a story saying that, you know, 'I can't tell if Sarah Palin is incompetent, stupid, unqualified, corrupt, or all of the above.' "

After National Review Editor Rich Lowry complained that the quote had obviously been wrenched out of context, CNN did . . . not much. "We did not re-air that portion of the interview once this was brought to our attention," spokeswoman Christa Robinson said. The network gave a statement to the magazine but said nothing publicly. Finally, on Thursday, Griffin told viewers: "I botched it. I misquoted York." He said he told York and Lowry "that I regret any harm this may have brought." Lowry says the belated apology was welcome.

The Next Merger

The Chicago Tribune opened its Washington bureau during Abraham Lincoln's White House bid in 1859, and the Los Angeles Times in 1914. Now Tribune Co. boss Sam Zell has decided to combine them into one operation that will serve all the company's papers.

The current total of 42 staffers will be reduced by about 12, insiders say, and most duplicate beats will be eliminated. Who will run the bureau is unclear. The Tribune's last two bureau chiefs quit in recent weeks, while Doyle McManus, who has run the Times bureau for 13 years, has told colleagues that he long ago asked for a new assignment.

And now back to Palin. . .

There's a new tsunami of Palin punditry, which I take as a sign that the media are losing interest in McCain and consider the race over. Dueling pieces in the New Republic, beginning with Jonathan Chait:

"I'm predicting that Sarah Palin will be the next Republican nominee.

"Palin is wildly popular with the Republican base, in the same stratosphere as George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan . . .

"Already, by suggesting that she disagrees with McCain's decision not to emphasize Rev. Wright, Palin is siding with the emerging conservative analysis of what went wrong with the campaign: McCain was too soft, too worried about the approval of the press corps, and too ideologically compromised to make the case against Obama."

Not so fast, says Noam Scheiber:

"Jon concedes that 'some conservative commentators have attacked her,' but adds that 'these are a small minority and almost all of them work for publications aimed at mainstream readers, not the conservative subculture.' I'm not sure this is right. Yes, David Brooks works for a mainstream outlet. But Kathleen Parker lacerated Palin in National Review, while Peggy Noonan did the same in the Wall Street Journal opinion pages. If there's a better way to influence conservative opinion (at least in print), I'm not aware of it . . .

"Palin doesn't wear well over any extended length of time -- the reason being that her chief asset is novelty, which fades by definition. I'd venture that one reason she remains so popular among working-class conservatives is that they follow politics less closely than the rest of us, meaning they've had less time to get burnt out on her. (Though I'd concede that her appeal to this group is based on more than novelty alone.) Unfortunately, a presidential primary is one of the most drawn-out, grueling selection processes ever devised. If Palin didn't wear well in a two-month campaign, I have a hard time believing she'll wear well over an 18-month primary season."

The finger-pointing is fast, furious and on background. Atlantic's Marc Ambinder:

"There's a faction within the McCain campaign has begun to whisper about Gov. Sarah Palin to reporters. The faction includes staff members and advisers who consult with staff members. It does not seem to include any members of the senior staff, although the definition of the senior staff here is a bit elastic. This faction has come to believe that Palin, perhaps unwittingly subconsciously or otherwise, has begun to play Sen. McCain off of the base, consistently and deliberately departed from the campaign's message of the day in ways that damage McCain . . .

"Palin's criticism of the campaign for pulling out of Michigan was greeted by anger internally. . . . Palin's expressed opinion that Rev. Wright is a legitimate issue -- which subtly knocks McCain for not raising it -- was perceived as an attempt to preemptively blame McCain's wobbliness for his loss, which would theoretically enhance Palin's standing with the base.) The complaints extend all the back to Palin's vice presidential vetting. Major disclosures, issue positions and associations did not come up, and the campaign was so overwhelmed with new information early on, it largely abandoned an effort to defend them individually. This is the claim, anyway. For the record, senior adviser Mark Salter, accurately identified everywhere as the aide who is closest to McCain, calls this scenario 'bull . . .' "

Politico looks at it from the other side, as a Palin rebellion:

"Even as John McCain and Sarah Palin scramble to close the gap in the final days of the 2008 election, stirrings of a Palin insurgency are complicating the campaign's already-tense internal dynamics. Four Republicans close to Palin said she has decided increasingly to disregard the advice of the former Bush aides tasked to handle her, creating occasionally tense situations as she travels the country with them.

"Those Palin supporters, inside the campaign and out, said Palin blames her handlers for a botched rollout and a tarnished public image -- even as others in McCain's camp blame the pick of the relatively inexperienced Alaska governor, and her public performance, for McCain's decline. 'She's lost confidence in most of the people on the plane,' said a senior Republican who speaks to Palin, referring to her campaign jet. He said Palin had begun to 'go rogue' in some of her public pronouncements and decisions. 'I think she'd like to go more rogue,' he said."

At National Review, Victor Davis Hanson is steamed over Palin's treatment:

"We seem to have forgotten that the standards of censure of her vice-presidential candidacy were not applied equally to the presidential campaign of Barack Obama. The media at times seems unaware of this embarrassment, namely that their condemnation of Sarah Palin as inexperienced equally might apply to Barack Obama -- and to such a degree that by default we were offered the lame apology (reiterated by Colin Powell himself) that Obama's current impressive campaigning, not his meager political accomplishments, was already an indication of a successful tenure as president. The result is that we now know more about the Palin pregnancies -- both of mother and daughter -- that we do the relationships of Tony Rezko, Bill Ayers, Reverend Wright, and Father Pfleger with our possible next president . . .

"While Gov. Palin's frequent college transfers and Idaho degree are an item of snickering among pundits, none of them can claim to care much about Barack Obama's own undergraduate career. To suggest that he release his undergraduate transcript is near blasphemy; to scribble that Sarah Palin's Down Syndrome child was not her own is journalism as we now know it. To care that Joe Biden is vain, with bleached teeth, the apparent recipient of some sort of strange facial tightening tonic, and hair plugs is deservedly mean and petty; to sneer that the Alaskan mom of five bought a new wardrobe to run for vice president is, of course, vital proof for the American voter of her vanity and shallowness."

Vanity is okay. But $150,000?

The Anchorage Daily News, backing Obama, says of Palin: "despite her formidable gifts, few who have worked closely with the governor would argue she is truly ready to assume command of the most important, powerful nation on earth."

The sex scandal involving Democratic Rep. Tim Mahoney keeps getting worse:

"Following a series of reports on The Blotter, Mahoney confirmed that he had hired one of his mistresses for his congressional staff and that he was also carrying on an affair with a Florida county official who sought his help with a federal grant.

"But a document obtained by ABC News reveals new allegations of threatening behavior and sexual harassment toward a female staffer, that go far beyond Mahoney's public confession, including claims that he urged one of his mistresses to serve as a 'tease' for big donors."

Talk about doing double duty.

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

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