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Carl Cannon: A Liberal Press Savaged Palin Unfairly

John on July 12, 2009 at 3:43 pm

This is a case I’ve tried to make in some detail. In fact, I wish Carl Cannon had read some of my posts because they would go even further in supporting his thesis. But before getting into details, Cannon offers a brief history of journalism and the issue of bias in reporting. This is an issue of some importance to me and, for reasons that will become clear in a couple weeks, something I feel in particular need of pointing out now:

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.

As Rush has said many times in response to the question of his own fairness and balance, “I am the balance.” Exactly right. Now Cannon recounts the history of press treatment of Palin:

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 fact of the matter is, the comparison between her and Hillary Clinton is the comparison between an igloo and the Empire State Building,” Chris Matthews said on MSNBC’s “Hardball” last October. (Note to Chris: That’s not a “fact;” it’s closer to a simile, and an ad hominem one at that.) But Matthews was hardly alone.

“This is not a serious choice,” said Eleanor Clift, a regular on “The McLaughlin Group.” “It looks like a made-for-TV movie. If the media reaction is anything, it’s been literally laughter in very, very many newsrooms.”

He identifies two particular areas that agitated Palin’s critics:

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.

“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.

But so it went.

She was a book burner, you know. How do I know this? Like many Americans, I received numerous emails telling me so, and found a hundred liberal Web sites that mentioned it. They even listed the books Palin wanted to ban from the public library in Wasilla, Alaska, classics and best sellers, ranging from “Huck Finn” to “Catch-22.” The list was a hoax, of course, a deliberate smear, and none too clever, either: It included books published a decade after Palin served as mayor. When questioned by their own audiences, these bloggers would point to stories in the mainstream media, including one in Time magazine quoting a man named John Stein, the bitter ex-mayor whom Palin defeated when she ran for office. This is from Time:

“Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. ‘She asked the library how she could go about banning books,’ he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them.’”

This turned out to be about half-true, as what Palin really did was ask the librarian “if she would object to censorship even if people were circling the library to protest about a book,” according to a contemporary account in the local newspaper. Yet this symbiosis between the mainstream media and the blogosphere raged throughout 2008, almost always to Palin’s detriment.

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.

Let’s pause here. Cannon is correct to lay into the left side of the blogosphere as it certainly played a role in all these false reports. But note that it’s the falseness that is really the problem. To the extent that blogs interact with the MSM, they at least have the responsibility to get it right and, failing that, to correct themselves when wrong. But as we saw just last week, when it comes to Palin, rumor and innuendo are still the path to glory on the left side of the blogosphere and the press still laps it up and reports the rumors (Shannyn Moore call your office). If the MSM merely treated the left side of the blogoshpere with the same skepticism and detachment with which it handles Republican officeholders, this wouldn’t be a problem.

So there are two failings here. One is that the lefty blogs pass off slander as truth, the second is that “serious” journalists elevate this muck to a national audience. If either level of this symbiotic news relationship is doing its job, this can’t happen. If blogs get it right, then their information should be picked up and at least considered. But if all they have is rumor, then CNN should make sure it stops at the national transom. All of that to say, the real problem here is a complete lack of objectivity on the left (and that includes the MSM) which blurs the boundary between news and garbage.

Now Cannon comes to the second of his two points:

[I]t’s important to remember why the Palin family even acknowledged Bristol’s pregnancy: Because a thousand “liberal” Web sites, led by Daily Kos, the favored site of leftist Democrats, filled cyberspace with off-the-wall theories that Trig Palin was really Bristol’s daughter and that Sarah had faked her own pregnancy. This was truly ugly territory, and nutty besides. It’s not terribly different from the Obama-is-a-secret-Muslim-not-born-in-this-country stuff, with one crucial distinction: The Obama Muslim stuff was either debunked or ignored by the media –not the conspiracy theories about Trig Palin’s birth. In some quarters of the evolving new media – The Huffington Post and Bill Maher’s HBO program, to name two – the Palin pregnancy hoax was repeated. Some traditional outlets, including Vanity Fair and, most inexplicably, The Atlantic blog written by Andrew Sullivan, kept hammering away at it after it was proven false by photographic evidence and by Bristol’s own pregnancy.

Notice that Cannon uses the past tense in that last sentence. Actually he should be speaking in the present tense because Andrew Sullivan is still, as of last week, toying with the idea that Trig’s birth was part of a conspiracy.

Cannon continues and explores Palin’s interviews with major media. Of the Charlie Gibson interview he says:

Despite how it was portrayed in the press, perhaps Charlie Gibson didn’t really expose Palin as an ignoramus. Maybe he tipped off his own private political views instead. No matter, the story line was set. Then came the much-parodied Katie Couric interview, where Palin couldn’t name a single publication she reads as a source of news, struggled to provide an example of McCain standing up to Wall Street, and rambled semi-coherently when Couric asked Palin why on the campaign trail she cites Alaska’s proximity to Russia as a foreign policy credential. It was this exchange that led to the most memorable line of the entire campaign: “I can see Russia from my house!” It came, of course, not from the candidate herself, but from her body-double, Tina Fey.

It must be said that no matter what one thinks of Couric’s style of interrogation, Palin bombed in that interview. Clearly, the lack of lead time afforded her by the McCain camp, as well as her own lack of preparation, was showing. More disconcerting, she was still winging it when she should have been cramming furiously. So, the coverage of that interview may have been fair, up to a point. My beef with my colleagues in the press is that we copied Palin’s very mistake: We thought after that session that we knew all we needed to know about Sarah Palin. Helen Thomas, old enough to just let it fly, spoke for many journalists when she said. “The ballgame was over after that. (Couric) saved the country.”

While I credit Cannon for the honesty of his piece, it has to be said that even here he has given far too much credit to the interviewers, Charlie Gibson in particular. As I pointed out at the time, Gibson’s interview was a sham of bad editing. The highlights:

  • Gibson confronts Palin with a quote intended to show she doesn’t support separation of church and state. When she says, I don’t think that’s what I said, Gibson responds “Exact quote.” In fact, Gibson got the quote wrong, leaving out the key word that made all the difference.
  • When it was pointed out to ABC that Gibson was wrong, they re-edited the interview to take out Gibson’s “Exact quote” line. Of course Palin is still responding as if he’d said it, but the audience never hears Gibson’s mistake.
  • Gibson asks her a series of questions about Russia. ABC edits her answer down to “They’re our next door neighbors and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska.” This becomes a national joke via Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live, i.e. “I can see Russia from my house.”
  • Palin’s actual answer which was never aired:
    “Well, I’m giving you that perspective of how small our world is and how important it is that we work with our allies to keep good relation with all of these countries, especially Russia. We will not repeat a Cold War. We must have good relationship with our allies, pressuring, also, helping us to remind Russia that it’s in their benefit, also, a mutually beneficial relationship for us all to be getting along.
  • On the question of NATO, ABC aired this exchange:

GIBSON: And under the NATO treaty, wouldn’t we then have to go to war if Russia went into Georgia?

PALIN: Perhaps so. I mean, that is the agreement when you are a NATO ally, is if another country is attacked, you’re going to be expected to be called upon and help.

  • That evening ABC, having cut out this answer, runs a headline on their site: EXCLUSIVE: GOV. SARAH PALIN WARNS WAR MAY BE NECESSARY IF RUSSIA INVADES ANOTHER COUNTRY
  • Here’s part of Palin’s answer to the same series of questions that ABC edited out and never broadcast:

PALIN: What I think is that smaller democratic countries that are invaded by a larger power is something for us to be vigilant against. We have got to be cognizant of what the consequences are if a larger power is able to take over smaller democratic countries.

And we have got to be vigilant. We have got to show the support, in this case, for Georgia. The support that we can show is economic sanctions perhaps against Russia, if this is what it leads to.

It doesn’t have to lead to war and it doesn’t have to lead, as I said, to a Cold War, but economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure, again, counting on our allies to help us do that in this mission of keeping our eye on Russia and Putin and some of his desire to control and to control much more than smaller democratic countries.

The Gibson interview, probably the most significant case of journalistic malpractice this decade, reinforced everything the left already thought about Palin. She was a foreign policy lightweight. She was belligerent. She might even be some sort of Christian dominionist stalking-horse. ABC’s dishonest edits just happened to reinforce those views. Couric may have been given credit for taking down Palin, but it was the sham Gibson interview that destroyed her chances and McCain’s along with them. J-school theses can and should be written about what went wrong at ABC in 2008.

Carl Cannon continues with what he feels is the most obvious media failure of the campaign, the handling of the vice presidential debate:

Facts matter, the man said. But they didn’t in 2008, not when it came to Joe Biden (our guy) against Sarah Palin (odd outsider). The ladies and gentlemen of the press were more interested in her hair, her glasses, her wardrobe, he accent, her sex life, her kids’ sex lives, and her hunting habits than in whether her opponent knew anything about foreign policy, the Constitution of the United States, or the job he was running for. They still are. The relentlessly negative coverage of Palin goes on unabated — she’s the subject of a much-ballyhooed hatchet job in Vanity Fair this month — even as Biden makes minor news from time to time by continuing his penchant for gaffes, this time while serving as the second most powerful person in the federal government.

It’s a great, must read piece. Kudos to Carl Cannon for speaking truth to power.

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