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The Problem with the Media's Palin Coverage

The Problem with the Media's Palin Coverage

By Robert Tracinski - September 17, 2008

Sarah Palin's selection as John McCain's vice-presidential running mate has changed the shape of the general election campaign. It has invigorated the Republican "base"--with very material results in terms of fund-raising and volunteers--and it has won the McCain ticket an edge in support among the independent voters who are likely to decide the election. Palin's "skirttails" have even helped close the gap in congressional races across the country, possibly keeping Democrats from gaining a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate.

But a vice-presidential selection is about more than just winning an election. Today, vice-presidents tend to be more active than they were even a few decades ago in contributing to the actual work of the administration once it is in office. And even more significant is the fact that a vice-president tends to become the incumbent president's successor as his party's candidate eight years from now, with the potential to shape the direction of the party for decades to come. That is particularly true of Governor Palin, who has been received with such enthusiasm by Republicans that some have even begun to wonder if the wrong person is at the top of the ticket. No matter what happens this November, Palin is suddenly a top contender as the Republican presidential nominee four or eight years from now.

So if Sarah Palin is potentially the future of the Republican Party, it is vitally important to ask: who is Sarah Palin? What does she stand for? In what direction will she take her party?

This is the real reason why we should be concerned about Sarah Palin's lack of Washington experience. The importance of experience is not just about whether the candidate is prepared to exercise the duties of his office; it is about whether we are prepared to elect him to that office. A candidate with experience on the national stage has sponsored legislation, made decisions, talked extensively with the national press, and done all of the other things that make his character and ideas a "known quantity." (In Barack Obama's case, he has failed to do some of these things--which is equally revealing.) But Palin's personal character is well known only to Alaskans; her record had not been well-researched and her ideas had not been broadcast before a few weeks ago. We need to discover all of these things--and now is the worst time to try to discover them.

This is a bad time because the truth is being shrouded by partisanship--on both sides. By this point in the race, a larger number of people have already made a commitment to one presidential candidate or the other, and they want their man to win. So they will interpret McCain's vice-presidential selection in a way that reinforces that pre-existing preference. Democrats will attack Sarah Palin, if for no other reason than that they want Barack Obama to win and they oppose anyone who endangers that goal. Republicans will defend her just as vigorously because they had already grudgingly decided to vote for McCain in order to stop Obama--and Palin finally made them feel good about that choice.

The fact that politicians on both sides have their partisan "talking points" on this issue and stick unwaveringly to that established agenda is no surprise. What makes it so difficult to assess Palin is that the press has transformed itself into a wing of the Obama campaign.

I usually don't encourage complaints about press bias. Of course the mainstream media is biased to the left; everyone knows that, except possibly the mainstream media itself. So the only alternative is to take that bias into account and find ways to push back against it and to go around the mainstream media to connect with the voters directly. In balance, I think this turns out to be an advantage for the Republicans and a disadvantage for Democrats, who frequently mistake the adulation of the press for the support of actual voters.

That said, I have never seen anything like the wave of hostility and contempt aimed at Sarah Palin from the moment she was nominated. This press partisanship is a crucial part of the story, because it explains the difficulty of discovering who Sarah Palin is. And ironically, the pompous hostility of the press has served as a foil which Palin has used to increase her popular appeal.

Here is just a sampling of the campaign of lies and half-truths launched against Palin. She is accused of banning books in the Wasilla public library when she was mayor--but the list of supposedly banned books that has been circulated on the Internet includes titles that hadn't even been published at the time. She is accused of being such an anti-evolution zealot that she supposedly referred to dinosaurs as "lizards of Satan"--a cheap parody of the views of the creationists (which are a cheap parody to begin with). She is accused of being opposed, not only to abortion, but to contraception, an even more extreme religious-right viewpoint--except that this claim is not true.

Most of these smears were limited to the Internet--but some of them made their way into the mainstream media, and all of them have been widely accepted as truth by those who want to dismiss Palin. (For example, last weekend's Saturday Night Live parody of Palin and Hillary Clinton, while generally very funny, made a brief reference to the dinosaur claim.) To its credit, one mainstream media outlet, Newsweek, went so far as to create a "Sliming Palin" page to debunk all of these claims.

Feminists suddenly decided that it is impossible for a woman with young children to seek high achievement in her career. This claim was propagated, of course, by many high-achieving women in the media who have young children. Michelle Malkin--herself a commentator and mother--has a thoroughly devastating overview of the outright hypocrisy of female commentators on this issue.

And of course, no one could avoid noticing the bias in the "20/20" broadcast of the first big media interview with Sarah Palin. Before the interview even began, we were given an introduction to the governor's background by ABC reporter Kate Snow, the general tone of which is summed up in this sentence: "But as you get to know Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, you discover that, like so many American stories, hers is part fact and part fable, and a lot of that grey area in between that's hard to pin down in modern American politics." That last phrase about "grey areas" is ABC's excuse to dredge up a lot of unproven innuendo, without accepting the responsibility of discovering the actual facts.

"Part fact, part fable" is definitely an accurate description--of Barack Obama's biography. But we are still waiting for the interview that begins by describing him that way.

The introduction went on to note, in a snide tone, that in the past two weeks Sarah Palin has given the same speech over and over again at various campaign appearances. There is nothing unusual about this; it's called a "stump speech," and all politicians do it. But this was used to imply that Palin is lacking in substance and can only repeat by rote a speech given to her by others.

The overall message about Sarah Palin was none too subtle: this woman is an uneducated nobody with a faked resume--she's a liar and a fraud. By the time Snow's introduction was over, I felt as if I no longer had to watch the interview; I had already been told what to think.

Then of course there is Charles Gibson's interview. The interview has been chopped up so many times by ABC and presented in so many different ways that it is like trying to hit a moving target, so I will just stick for now to the version presented on "20/20." Looking down his nose over his glasses, Gibson treated Palin with the air of a pompous college professor grilling a failing student. One of the first questions asked of Palin was how she felt on being nominated for the vice-presidency, and Gibson immediately volunteered two adjectives: "frightened" and "overwhelmed." Would he have done that to any other candidate? I have never seen it. Palin batted down these suggestions, of course, but Gibson had already made his subliminal impression on the audience: in his opinion, Palin should feel frightened and overwhelmed.

Gibson's substantive questions to Palin had an annoying habit of stating "well documented" facts supposedly contradicting Palin's previous statements and then inviting her to "clarify" the contradiction. Not all of Gibson's facts were accurate, but the phrasing of the question had a clear meaning: prove you're not a liar. And when Palin would give a perfectly clear answer to a question, Gibson would follow up with: "I'm still not clear..." and ask it again. His subtle message: she's evading and not answering my questions.

Again, this is only a sample. It is clear that the press wants their man Barack Obama to win--and as a result, they have obscured rather than illuminated our attempt to make an objective assessment of who Sarah Palin is, how she thinks, and what she stands for. And as I have pointed out, the worst consequence of this transparent bias may turn out to be that the press has destroyed the credibility it would need to make valid criticisms of Palin.

But there is enough information available to begin making our own independent assessment of Palin, using the bits and pieces we can discern through this veil of press partisanship. To do this, let's move past irrelevant details of her biography and past the debatable elements in her record. Let's look at what we can find about Sarah Palin's ideas and principles.

Robert Tracinski is editor of The Tracinski Letter and a contributor to RealClearMarkets.

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