Flubbing Their Media Moment

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 2, 2009 10:41 AM

Caroline Kennedy has been hiding from the press. Rod Blagojevich has been racing to every studio this side of Rachael Ray's kitchen. And Sarah Palin is accusing network anchors of blatant bias.

As a case study in media mismanagement, it would be hard to find three public figures who more badly botched their time in the searing spotlight. Kennedy's U.S. Senate bid was buried under an avalanche of negative headlines. Blagojevich lost his governorship last week after deciding he'd rather be called a "potty mouth" by Joy Behar than mount a legal defense in his impeachment trial. And Palin is trying to repair her tattered image after two disastrous interviews led her vice presidential campaign to largely freeze out the media.

They have their share of legitimate gripes. The late president's daughter was hit with uncorroborated rumors about her personal life, based on anonymous sources. The Alaska governor was subjected to stinging criticism about her parenting skills and unfounded speculation online that she is not the mother of her baby. The now-former Illinois governor has been presumed corrupt without a criminal trial -- but didn't help himself by blabbing about everything except the expletive-laden scheming caught on federal wiretaps.

Everyone knows the rules: Candidates and public officials are expected to hit big-league pitching. If they whiff, it's hard to mount a comeback, and grumbling about the umpires doesn't get you very far.

Palin delivers her indictment in previously unreleased portions of a forthcoming DVD on the 2008 election. She said that "some in the mainstream media" are on a "mission" to "destroy someone's reputation via thrashing their record, telling lies, spreading gossip and slander." Palin added, however, that she didn't want it to sound like she was "whining" or "like I'm a victim."

Kennedy, who had always led a sheltered celebrity's life, made an inauspicious debut when she literally walked away from reporters at her first photo op and then, you know, stumbled through a series of interviews marked by her halting delivery. When Kennedy decided 10 days ago against seeking the appointment to Hillary Clinton's Senate seat, she retreated into silence -- issuing a terse statement saying she was withdrawing for "personal reasons."

That, of course, created a vacuum that some journalists rushed to fill. The New York Post quoted a "source close to" Gov. David Paterson as saying he never planned to pick her because of unspecified problems with "taxes, her nanny -- and, possibly, her marriage." Bill O'Reilly went further on Fox News, saying Paterson "was told by unidentified sources that Caroline Kennedy was having an affair with" -- and he named a prominent man. O'Reilly went on to say that he couldn't "verify" it and was being careful, "unlike the New York Times, which at times prints gossip, innuendo, and you know, terrible stuff to hurt people with whom they disagree; they did it to me on a number of occasions."

But how is it anything more than innuendo to suggest that Kennedy is having an affair based on what unnamed sources supposedly told Paterson? Such an approach is unfortunately reminiscent of the widely criticized Times story last year, which said that two former John McCain aides were worried during his 2000 presidential campaign that he had a romantic relationship with a lobbyist.

When a New York Daily News reporter said on MSNBC's "Hardball" that "the affair issue" had surfaced on blogs, Chris Matthews cut her off, saying, "Let's stick to journalism." Days later, the New York Post said Kennedy was "innocent" of the affair slur -- in a Page Six gossip item.

Kennedy, of course, could clear things up by talking about why she withdrew. Her allies say she has ended her political career and believes she would revive the rumors by discussing her reasoning.

Palin, who went on a television blitz after the election, offers harsh assessments of the news business in a 40-minute interview with conservative commentator John Ziegler for a DVD titled "How Obama Got Elected." An unedited copy, made available to The Washington Post, goes beyond recent excerpts.

While Palin says it was her responsibility to "fight my way through the filter," she challenged the way CBS's Katie Couric and ABC's Charlie Gibson interviewed her during the campaign. She said there was nothing wrong with her asking Gibson what he meant with a question about the "Bush doctrine," which she was widely seen as having bobbled.

Palin also objected to Couric "bugging me" about abortion. The anchor had asked whether the procedure should be illegal for a 15-year-old raped by her father, and pressed Palin several times to offer a position on the morning-after pill.

"They didn't take my word for it when I would express my opinion, they would seek to want to ask a question to twist what I had just said and turn it into maybe what their opinion was about what I should have said," Palin said of the anchors.

But the follow-ups were asked because Palin, like most politicians, can be vague when she doesn't want to be pinned down. The onetime sports reporter's view of journalism seems to be that once she is asked questions, her answers should be taken at face value. Palin is understandably annoyed by some of her media treatment, but if she pursues a career in national politics, the questions aren't going to get any easier.

Blagojevich is hardly a big media booster; he was caught on the wiretaps saying the Chicago Tribune should "fire those [expletives]" -- the expletives being critical editorial writers -- if its parent company wanted state aid.

But he shrewdly fed television's appetite for controversial guests by appearing on more than a dozen shows last week, finessing the questions by insisting he could not get into the specific allegations against him. When Blagojevich repeatedly said it was unfair that the Illinois senate wouldn't let him call witnesses, almost no journalist challenged the inaccurate claim. (He could have called anyone but a small group of witnesses put off-limits by prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.) And while Blagojevich repeated like a mantra that the wiretap excerpts were "out of context," he refused to provide any semblance of context.

It's not that the interrogators went easy on him: "You've . . . been called narcissistic, delusional, a sociopath," ABC's Cynthia McFadden said. "One state senator says that you're not playing with a full deck. Are you playing with a full deck?" In fact, he shuffled the cards in such a way that he avoided the substance of the case.

"Blagojevich is a TV freakshow. Watching him is like watching Tammy Faye Bakker or Kato Kaelin," writes Baltimore Sun columnist David Zurawik. Yet each anchor lined up for a turn. It was, of course, good television.

In the end, Blagojevich did exactly what he told all those programs he wouldn't do, showing up at the Illinois Senate to make a rambling speech, which of course was carried live on the cable news networks. The media blitz didn't stop the state Senate from unanimously ousting him, but perhaps he had a different goal. Blagojevich may have turned himself into enough of a celebrity to land a fat book deal -- if he can stay out of jail.

Google's Tentacles

The new issue of Wired features a story called "The Plot to Kill Google," which describes how the company's growth and ambition "have made it a target of some of the country's most powerful business and interest groups."

The New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, features the piece on its Web site, and little wonder. The co-author, Wired Senior Editor Nicholas Thompson, is a fellow at the foundation, which is chaired by Google chief executive Eric Schmidt. A prominent ally of President Obama, Schmidt donated $1 million to the foundation last year.

The article noted Schmidt's and Thompson's role with the foundation toward the end. Thompson, who draws a stipend from New America, says the piece was fair and pulled no punches. "We go after Google as hard as we want and don't worry whether Schmidt will be offended," he says.

Liberal Flameout

President Obama may be riding high in Washington, but OBAMA 1260 is not.

The area's only progressive talk station is changing formats, dropping such syndicated liberal hosts as Ed Schultz, Stephanie Miller and Bill Press in favor of financial news, starting next week.

The move by Redskins owner Dan Snyder, who purchased the station, WWRC, and others in Washington last summer, leaves the city without a liberal radio outlet. Program Director Greg Tantum says he thought the station could work because of enthusiasm over Obama, but that ratings collapsed to a level that could not be measured after the election.

But ratings nearly doubled, he says, at Snyder's conservative station, WTNT, which features Laura Ingraham and Bill Bennett. Tantum said he will move Schultz to WTNT to give him another shot.

Is the stimulus an emergency-spending vehicle or an ideological contraption? The New York Times frames the debate:

"At various times in American history, moments like this one have been used for big programs, from integrating the armed forces to creating Social Security and, later, Medicare. So it is little wonder that everyone with a big, stalled, transformative project -- green energy programs, broadband networks that reach into rural America, health insurance for the newly unemployed or uninsured -- is citing the precedent of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and declaring that a new New Deal is overdue."

On the Daily Beast, Michael Lind adds a geographic wrinkle to the stimulus argument:

"On Wednesday, January 28, 2009, President Barack Obama's $819 billion stimulus plan passed the House of Representatives, despite the solid opposition of the Confederates.

"By the Confederates I mean the Republican Party and their allies among Southern conservative Democrats. The battle in Washington is not between liberals and conservatives; it is between the Union and the South.

"The Republican Party that voted unanimously against the stimulus bill is, in essence, the party of the former Confederacy. In the House of Representatives, there is not a single Republican representative from New England. In the U.S. Senate, there is not a single Republican from the Pacific Coast . . .

"The vote about the stimulus package was not about economics. It was about nullification. It was the bipartisan Confederacy sending a message to the rest of America, stricken by the greatest crisis since the Depression. That message? DROP DEAD."

Think that overstates it just a tad?

One woman's political payoff is another woman's principle, if this Nation piece by Katha Pollitt is any indication:

"Democrats heeded President Obama and dropped from the stimulus bill a provision that would have made it easier for states to offer contraception through Medicaid to low-income women not covered by Medicaid now. This followed several days in which Republicans mocked the item as frivolous pork, like Las Vegas's proposed Mob Museum or the reseeding of the national mall. And how dare Nancy Pelosi suggest that women should be helped to avoid unwanted pregnancies in the midst of an economic crisis! It's eugenics and China's one-child policy rolled into one. You wonder how giving women more freedom to plan their kids equals forcing them not to have any?

"Ask Chris Matthews, that noted expert on women, who on Hardball seemed to think the U.S. had narrowly escaped becoming a reproductive gulag:' It turns out the idea of getting people to have fewer children didn't sell as national policy. Maybe people don't like Washington, which has done such a bang-up job regulating the sharpies on Wall Street, to decide it's now time to regulate the number of kids people might be in the mood for.'

"There are people who thought Obama practiced some clever political jiu-jitsu by bending over backwards to meet Republican objections. Supposedly, this bipartisan gesture would make it harder for Republicans to reject the bill. Whoops, guess not: House Republicans just voted against it unanimously. Backup theory: Well, now Obama looks reasonable and statesmanlike, while Republicans look rigid and insane. The stimulus will pass, and Republicans will get no credit. Low-income women get the shaft, but they should be used to it by now . . .

"Is birth control tangential to the stimulus? Only if all health spending is, but no one (so far) is arguing that the massive sums for health care be removed from the bill."

This Boston Globe piece is going to tick off some gay activists who will see it as backtracking:

"The Obama administration is telling the Pentagon and gay-rights advocates that it will have to study the implications for national security and enlist more support in Congress before trying to overturn the so-called 'don't ask, don't tell' law and allow gays to serve openly in the military, according to people involved in the discussions.

"They said Obama, who pledged during the campaign to overturn the law, does not want to ask lawmakers to do so until the military has completed a comprehensive assessment of the impact that such a move would have on military discipline."

My sense is Obama had already signaled he would delay to avoid a Clinton-like controversy at the start of his term.

Writers love to do the counterintuitive piece -- "Was Hitler Really All That Bad?" -- so Bill Geist gives us a defense of Blago:

"As a son of Illinois, I think I speak for all from the Land of Lincoln when I say that impeached Gov. Blagojevich was an embarrassment.

"His name does not deserve to even be mentioned in the same sentence with the greats ensconced in the annals of Illinois political corruption: State Auditor Orville Hodge, Secretary of State Paul 'Shoebox' Powell, and the Govs. Kerner, Walker, and Ryan. I could go on.

"His is a hollow corruption. Oh, he talks a good game, prancing around on The View and Larry King. His wiretapped recordings sound like an audition tape for a low budget Serbo-mafioso Godfather knockoff.

"But what has he actually done? 'Blago' has been charged by federal prosecutors with talking about committing a crime.

"Show me the money! Show me the victims!--and , please, don't say 'the citizens of Illinois.' That nauseates me.

"The Greats used to take cash, no credit cards accepted. As a lad I read of the exploits of Illinois auditor Orville Hodge, who took millions of dollars in bribes and had a fat bank account, four cars, two planes, and homes in Illinois and Florida to show for it. Real corruption, that was! A racetrack owner in suburban Chicago claimed $100,000 in payoffs to Gov. Kerner on her income tax as a 'cost of doing business' in the state."

Clearly, Pay-Rod isn't in their league.

"I don't care whether Michael Phelps smokes dope or not, but the question is whether he is a dope:

"Michael Phelps is at least as tech savvy as most people in his generation. He certainly knows that 1) almost every person his age carries a cellphone and that 2) nearly every one of those phones has a camera," reports the L.A. Times.

"Yet Phelps, surprisingly, either did not know about or chose to ignore the ramifications all those camera phones: A celebrity whose tens of millions in sponsorship money depends on image cannot do anything stupid in public, because someone will have taken a picture or video of the indiscretion. And not all those people will feel inclined to let what happens in Vegas stay in Vegas.

"So it was that a picture of Phelps sucking on a bong showed up in Sunday's editions of the low-rent British tabloid News of the World in a story headlined, 'WHAT A DOPE.' "

Ever notice how these hot new Web sites can be too good to be true? Salon's Judy Berman observes:

"Dating a Banker Anonymous (DABA), a cadre of women profiled in Wednesday's New York Times who supposedly formed a support group to vent about their disintegrating, post-subprime crisis relationships with Financial-Guy Boyfriends (FBFs). The piece hit a nerve with Broadsheet readers, who left more than 100 comments (and counting!) ranging from conjectures about exactly how 'tongue in cheek' the DABA blog is to declarations of class war.

"Of course, I wasn't the only blogger who jumped on the story: By now, 'It's the Economy, Girlfriend' has attracted the attention of everyone from Gawker and Jezebel to the Financial Times. New York magazine's Daily Intel even attempted to defend the DABA girls. And then came the inevitable news that the DABAs might be getting a book deal. But the most interesting take by far comes from the least gossipy news outlet I can think of: NPR. Linda Holmes, a writer for NPR's Monkey See blog, read the Times piece, smelled a rat and asked the question, 'Did the New York Times Get Punk'd?'

"While the evidence of a hoax isn't conclusive, Holmes does uncover some potentially damning evidence. For one thing, though entries date back to November, the dabagirls.com domain has only been registered since Jan. 16 of this year -- and all comments on the blog seem to have materialized since then, too."

Hmmm . . . not a good sign.

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