Friday, July 10, 2009

Palin coverage hurts journalists

Politics Daily has this piece on how the journalism industry has shot itself in the foot, while aiming at Sarah Palin.

The mainstream media is undergoing its demise, drip by drip, day by day, and its practitioners, which include most of my friends in life, are under considerable pressure. In my opinion, however, these pressures do not excuse the treatment accorded Sarah Palin. On the contrary, to me the entire Sarah saga revealed that it wasn't only the traditional media's business model that is broken. Our journalism model is busted, too.

In the 2008 election, we took sides, straight and simple, particularly with regard to the vice presidential race. I don't know that we played a decisive role in that campaign, and I'm not saying the better side lost. What I am saying is that we simply didn't hold Joe Biden to the same standard as Sarah Palin, and for me, the real loser in this sordid tale is my chosen profession.

From the founding of the Republic until the 1840s, newspapers were organs of a particular political party, or faction – or reflected the personal views of the proprietor. In that decade, as is happening now, technological innovation wrought cosmic change, first in the speed of news delivery, and then in the underlying philosophy of those who presented it. The telegraph begat the Associated Press, and, over time, a new paradigm emerged....

...there was money to be made in packaging the news, big money, and ultimately, the nation's publishers decided they could reach ever-larger audiences (and rake in ever-larger pots of dough) by toning down the partisanship. "Objectivity" became the watchword, and to enforce this concept, a host of social innovations, from journalism schools to journalism prizes, came into existence. Increased professionalism was part of a larger societal trend that swept vocations such as medicine and the law. In journalism, a movement that Professor West dubbed "objective media" came to pass. It wasn't perfect, but it was better than anything that had preceded it -- and it enjoyed a nice, 50-year run.

Concerns about "liberal bias" arose in this supposed Golden Age, but we had an answer for that: Sure, reporters are liberal, we told our sources, but the publisher is conservative. The ideal being peddled was that, yes, a Depression-era reporter making $8 a week will likely pen pieces extolling the New Deal, but meanwhile the owner/publisher is commissioning editorials lamenting Franklin Roosevelt's assault on capitalism. It sounds esoteric now, but when newspapers were king it worked. (It might still work: The lone news outlet in North America that still operates under this model is The Wall Street Journal. Its editorial pages have been conservative for decades; a recent study found its news pages to be the most liberal in the mainstream media. Guess what: The Journal is the largest circulation paper in this country.) But I digress.

Perhaps the seeds of the "objective" media's demise were sown in its very creation. Professionalism and a quest for objectivity made journalism a more attractive profession even as record profits made it a better paying one. The upshot was a generation of college educated reporters and editors, along with a set of cultural and political attitudes they brought with them from the nation's elite institutions of higher learning. In time, another technological innovation – broadcast – changed the historic role of newspapers and magazines. No longer deliverers of the news, print journalists became interpreters of events. That proved a slippery slope. As the elite denizens of newsrooms began to analyze the news instead of merely chronicling it, the confidence their audience had in the journalists' fairness and ideological balance began to wane.

This trend was only heightened by the ascendancy of television network news broadcasts, which had no convenient wall between opinion and fact-based journalism. And all this happened, mind you, before the advent of the Internet. By the 1990s, the audience for political news began fragmenting into subgroups of Americans who already thought alike. Meanwhile, an unrelated development put journalism on the firing line.

That event was the decline of conservative, mostly Southern, Democrats (and, eventually, liberal Republicans as well). A patchwork quilt of ideology and regionalism gave way to a U.S. political system more closely resembling that of Great Britain. Today, an American who is liberal tends to be a Democrat, a conservative is almost always a Republican. This may help clarify things for voters, but it created a little-understood crisis for journalists. If being "liberal" now meant sympathy for the Democratic Party, and being conservative implied sympathy for Republicans, all those liberal newsrooms across the country were gradually going to alienate themselves from about half their readers.

That this might pose a problem never dawned on the men and women who controlled the media – even as it drove their right-of-center readers and viewers away in droves. When I tell my friends working in places like The New York Times that they created Rush Limbaugh, they respond with shock and disbelief. But it's obvious to me that it's true, even as the anointed sages of the Old Media solemnly denied that an animal such as "liberal bias" existed at all. It's like that scene in the fire swamp in "The Princess Bride" when Buttercup expresses fear of "R.O.U.Ses." Replies our hero Wesley: "Rodents Of Unusual Size? I don't think they exist" – just as one is about to chomp his arm off.
From the beginning, and for the ensuing 10 months, the coverage of this governor consisted of a steamy stew of cultural elitism and partisanship. The overt sexism of some male commentators wasn't countered, as one might have expected, by their female counterparts. Women columnists turned on Sarah Palin rather quickly. A plain-speaking, moose-hunting, Bible-thumping, pro-life, self-described "hockey mom" with five children and movie star looks with only a passing interest in foreign policy -- that wasn't the woman journalism's reigning feminists had envisioned for the glass ceiling-breaking role of First Female President (or Vice President). Hillary Rodham Clinton was more like what they had in mind – and Sarah, well, she was the un-Hillary.
The first thing reporters and commentators seemed to have noticed about Gov. Palin was her physical beauty. The second was that she had a bunch of kids, the last one born with Down's syndrome in spring 2008. For some reason, these two facts infuriated many Democratic activists and bloggers – and some liberal journalists. The most egregious example was posted on Daily Kos on Sept. 12, 2008 by Paul Lewis Hackett III, a trial lawyer and U.S. Marine Corps veteran of Iraq, who ran in 2005 for a vacant seat in the House from Ohio's second congressional district, losing narrowly in a district President Bush had carried easily just a year earlier.

Fretting that the Obama campaign was going to lose Ohio to McCain, Hackett proposed his own solution: A series of savage attacks on the GOP ticket focusing on Sarah Palin and her family. Here is what he wrote:
The message (would be) simple and the professionals can refine it but essentially it should contain these elements: Sarah Palin? Can't keep her solemn oath of devotion to her husband and had sex with his employee. Sarah Palin? Accidentally got pregnant at age 43 and the tax payers of Alaska have to pay for the care of her disabled child. Sarah Palin? Unable to teach her 16 year old daughter right from wrong and now another teenager is pregnant. Sarah Palin? Can you trust Sarah Palin and her values with America's future?
Apparently, Hackett took the rumors of an affair from the National Enquirer, which offered no proof, or even evidence. He then segued into an even uglier line of attack, arguing that it's irresponsible to bring a handicapped baby into the world. This is not "pro-choice," it's pro-eugenics. It's also creepy and illiberal, and reinforces conservatives' worst fears about Democrats and the issue of abortion. And, oh yes, Bristol Palin's age was wrong. She was nearly 18 when Hackett wrote this screed, not 16. This proved a harbinger, too, as misinformation slipped easily from the left blogosphere into mainstream coverage.

This New Journalism, if you can call it that, exhibited in 2008 was epitomized by an eradication of the lines between fact and opinion – and, even more troubling, between reporting and propaganda. Some journalists were content to repeat Democratic Party talking points or bloggers' rumors as though they were established fact, interspersing them with ideological commentary in a kind of toxic stew. [Emphasis added – KL]

"She is a far-right conservative who supported Pat Buchanan over Bush in 2000. She thinks global warming is a hoax and backs the teaching of creationism in public schools," wrote Jonathan Alter in Newsweek on Aug. 29, 2008. Actually, she did not support Buchanan, she questioned whether climate change is man-made (not whether it's occurring) and gave creationists the most minor of rhetorical nods – and never questioned the teaching of evolution in schools....

She was a book burner, you know....

Remember her callous decision as governor to cut Alaska's special education budget by 62 percent? After receiving emails to that effect, CNN's Soledad O'Brien cited the figure on-air. Oops. Palin actually tripled the state's spending on special needs kids.

Did you hear the one about her membership in the Alaska Independence Party, which favors secession from the union? That made The New York Times, and it was wrong, too.

But it was in the area of her family life where the press really lost its bearings.

"A day of stunning Palin disclosures," was how the Associated Press greeted the news that Bristol Palin was pregnant. "A political stunner!" echoed CNN's Campbell Brown. In one 30-minute stretch, CNN reporters and anchors referred to the teen's pregnancy as "a bombshell" four separate times.
How much did this matter, in the end, to the outcome in 2008?

I really don't know. I do know this, however: The story line recited by my media brethren, naturally, absolves us of any wrongdoing....

...The Interviews.

The first of her in-depth network sit downs came with ABC's Charles Gibson. In those sessions, Palin came across as iffy, just barely treading water. But the press dunked her, particularly after witnessing this exchange:

GIBSON: Do you agree with the Bush Doctrine?
This was widely cited in the media as proof that Palin was unready and over her head, and that McCain had done something "cynical" in choosing her. Except that Bush never said that, exactly, and certainly never suggested Iraq was one of many nations to be invaded. Gibson was simply wrong in suggesting the so-called "Bush Doctrine" was as immutable as the Monroe Doctrine. The "Bush Doctrine" was always a fuzzy concept, usually described that way by the president's critics as a way of expressing disagreement with his approach to foreign policy.

I remember seeing the phrase for the first time in a think piece by Steven Weisman in The New York Times in April 2002..."Vice President Dick Cheney and the hawks in the Pentagon are said to have encouraged Mr. Bush to support Mr. Sharon's military drive, arguing that it was simply an extension of the so-called Bush Doctrine, which holds those who harbor terrorists accountable for terrorism." [Emphasis in original – KL]
That's one view. Another is that we chose sides in that election, and when our side pulled ahead, we stopped keeping score. The next time the Republicans showed strength (or, more precisely, when Palin's Democratic counterpart goofed up) we'd already become cheerleaders instead of judges. Before I explain what I mean by that, it's important to remember that those weirdly personal attacks on Palin began before the Gibson and Couric interviews. "I'm not convinced that's her baby," Bill Maher had said on HBO. That was Sept. 5. The following day Mort Kondracke called Palin "this wacko right-winger." Then movie star Matt Damon gave a television interview, saying he thinks the possibility of Palin becoming president is "a really scary thing." He went on in this vein, using words like "terrifying" and "totally absurd" and saying the possibility of a "hockey mom ... facing down President Putin is like a really bad Disney movie." Then, and only then, did the interviews take place. In other words, Palin's detractors had already made up their minds before she'd flopped in two interviews. Were her tormentors prescient? Or were they close-minded?

We were about to find out. As the truncated 2008 general election campaign raced by, Palin's critics in the Fourth Estate maintained that they were simply doing their job in ferreting out the qualifications, experience, temperament, and knowledge base that Sarah Palin would bring to national office. I'm not a Republican or a conservative; I'm a lifelong journalist who was born and raised in this profession and normally I'd defend the media in this argument. In this instance I cannot.

The reason is what happened when the battle over Sarah Palin came to a head on Oct. 2, 2008, in St. Louis, Mo. That night, the press showed its colors – and they were Democratic blue. That was the night that Palin cleaned Joe Biden's clock in their only debate, and nobody in the media could even see it, let alone report it. That was the night that the dual blinders of ideology and elitism prevented us being honest brokers.

Gov. Palin certainly had her sketchy moments that night....

Sen. Biden, however, was in a place by himself when it came to bogus claims, absurd contentions, and flights of rhetorical fancy. He threw out several assertions that were so preposterous that – had Palin made them – they would have prompted immediate calls for McCain to dump her from the ticket.
Should Joe Biden have known this stuff? Since he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, you'd hope so. But even if he didn't, you'd think it would be news when he unleashed a veritable fount of misinformation to impugn Palin's knowledge of the federal system while attacking a sitting vice president. It barely rated a mention in the collective mainstream media.
I must say, however, that when Palin announced her resignation last Friday, one of the few people who commented on it without saying something snarky was the only man who ever defeated her in an election. Asked for a comment by ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Vice President Biden replied that although he didn't necessarily see Palin as a victim of political bloodletting, he accepted her judgment on this matter and assumed she was doing it out of concern for her family.

"I don't know what prompted her I'm not going to second-guess her," Biden said. "And I take her at her word that (there was) a personal ingredient in it. And you have to respect that."

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