Sarah Palin's rambling abdication speech was hard to follow, let alone acclaim, but in her abrupt announcement that she is withdrawing from public office, the Republican governor of Alaska was hardly the only player in a 10-month drama who demonstrated a lack of self-awareness. Democrats scoffed at her "politics of personal destruction" line, but it's a maxim they originally popularized, and one they will undoubtedly trot out again the next time it happens to one of their own. But the true villains in this political morality play may have been the press.
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.
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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. In "The Rise and Fall of the Media Establishment," political scientist Darrell M. West dubbed the second era of newspapering -- from the mid-1840s until the 1920s -- the "commercial media."
Political agendas remained in evidence, but 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.
In the meantime, a new technology has arrived. The World Wide Web is every bit as revolutionary as the telegraph and the television, probably more so. It not only democratizes political communication, but it invokes a kind of permanent open mic night in this country. With no censors. Think of an open microphone in a great big saloon where it helps to use profanity, name-calling, and outrageous accusations -- all the better to be heard over the cacophonous crowd at the bar. It was into this political and journalistic environment that last Aug. 29 Republican presidential nominee John McCain, in an uphill fight against an attractive and front-running Democratic candidate, tapped the little-known governor of Alaska to be his running mate.
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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."
Howard Fineman, Clift's Newsweek colleague, in an appearance on MSNBC, said that McCain's choice of Palin undermined the planned story line of the GOP convention, which was going to be that Obama lacked the readiness to lead the country. "Well, Sarah Palin makes Barack Obama look like John Adams."
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.
"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.
Personally, I had always stood with the late, great Molly Ivins when it came to kids of politicians. The legendary Texas newspaper columnist was as liberal as they come, but her view about such matters was straightforward and unambiguous. "I don't do children," Molly said. (Barack Obama, by the way, agreed. Campaigning in Michigan when the Bristol Palin "bombshell" broke, he said, "People's families are off-limits and people's children are especially off-limits. This shouldn't be part of our politics. It has no relevance to Governor Palin's performance as a governor or potential performance as a vice president. So I would strongly urge people to back off these kinds of stories.")
His admirers in the press didn't heed their hero's warning. The Times, for example, which found the alleged transgressions of an actual presidential candidate (John Edwards) unworthy of investigation, managed to find room for three Page One stories touching on the sex life of a vice presidential candidate's daughter.
Also, it'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 child 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.
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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 narrative goes like this: Bristol's pregnancy notwithstanding, Sarah Palin and her family galvanized the Republican faithful in St. Paul, where the candidate showed great poise in her first national address, while attracting 32.7 million TV viewers – only 1.1 million fewer than had watched Obama a week earlier in Denver. By the end of the GOP convention, Palin had pulled ahead of Joe Biden by nine points in a poll asking who Americans would support if they could vote for the vice presidential nominees separately. She was doing fine, until....
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?
PALIN: In what respect, Charlie?
GIBSON: What do you interpret it to be?
PALIN: His worldview?
GIBSON: No, the Bush Doctrine, enunciated in September 2002, before the Iraq War.
(Palin, clearly not knowing what he's driving at, responds with generalities before Gibson interjects as though he's a civics teacher and she's a lazy student.)
GIBSON: "The Bush Doctrine, as I understand it, is that we have the right of anticipatory self-defense. That we have the right of a preemptive strike against any other country that we think is going to attack us. Do you agree with that?"
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 – the very time frame suggested by Charlie Gibson. Weisman, writing about Ariel Sharon and the Middle East, defines the "doctrine" much differently than Gibson. ("Washington is filled right now with speculation about the state of Mr. Bush's thinking and which of his advisers have gained the upper hand," he wrote. "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.")
Okay. 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."
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.
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Gov. Palin certainly had her sketchy moments that night. On one occasion, she called her opponent "Senator O'Biden." She referred twice to the top U.S. military officer in Afghanistan as "General McClellan." (His name is David McKiernan). She claimed as mayor to have reduced taxes "every year I was in office," an assertion that is accurate only if one ignores sales tax increases. Likewise, she maintained that McCain's $5,000 tax credit for health coverage was "budget-neutral," which is only possible by repealing the laws of mathematics. She gave McCain more credit than he was due in blowing the whistle on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, while repeating a misleading claim against Obama used by Hillary Clinton and McCain on an energy bill. She also exaggerated her own accomplishment regarding a $40 billion proposed pipeline in Alaska.
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.
The good senator from Delaware warmed up slowly, erroneously claiming that McCain voted with Obama on a budget resolution, and asserting wrongly that Obama wanted to return to the Reagan-era marginal income tax rates. He also embarked on an appallingly wrongheaded monologue about the constitutional history of the vice presidency. But when the talk turned to national security, presumably Biden's purported area of expertise, he went completely off the grid.
• "John McCain voted against a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty that every Republican has supported," Biden stated. (Actually, in a 1999 vote in Congress, McCain sided with 50 other Republicans to kill the treaty. Only four joined the Democrats.)
• "Pakistan already has deployed nuclear weapons," Biden said. "Pakistan's weapons can already hit Israel and the Mediterranean." (Pakistan has no known intercontinental missiles. The range of its weapons is thought to be 1,000 miles – halfway to Israel.)
• "When we kicked--along with France--we kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon, I said and Barack said, 'Move NATO forces in there. Fill the vacuum, because if you don't...Hezbollah will control it.'" Biden recalled. "Now what's happened? Hezbollah is a legitimate part of the government in the country immediately to the north of Israel." (Except that the U.S. never kicked Hezbollah out of Lebanon or anywhere else. They've been entrenched in Lebanon since 1982. Actually, Hezbollah, insofar as it was responsible for the 1983 suicide bombing at the Marine barracks that killed 241 U.S. servicemen, kicked America out of Lebanon, not the other way around.)
• "The president...insisted on elections on the West Bank, when I said, and others said, and Barack Obama said, 'Big mistake. Hamas will win. You'll legitimize them.' What happened? Hamas won," Biden said. (Only the last two words of Biden's strange soliloquy are true. The rest are false. For one thing, Fatah controls the West Bank. Biden was thinking of Gaza. Secondly, neither Biden nor Obama predicted the 2006 victory for Hamas in Gaza's legislative elections. Third, McCain and Obama – but not Biden -- signed a letter urging the president to pressure Palestinians to require that candidates adhere to democratic principles before being allowed to run for office. Fourth, Biden served as an election observer and later wrote an article expressing high praise for Bush's actions. To sum up: One factual error and three fibs in only 31 words. Pretty impressive, in its way.)
• "With Afghanistan, facts matter...we spend more money in three weeks on combat in Iraq than we spend on the entirety of the last seven years that we have been in Afghanistan. Let me say that again..." (He did say it again, but that didn't make it true. It's wildly and weirdly off the mark. Yes, facts matter. The facts here were that at the time Biden was speaking, the U.S. had spent $172 billion in Afghanistan. The Iraq War consumes between $7 billion and $8 billion every three weeks. Biden's math was off by 2,000 percent.)
• "Can I clarify this? This is simply not true about Barack Obama. He did not say (he'd) sit down with Ahmadinejad." (He most certainly did. And among those who criticized him at the time for it was Joe Biden, who told Byron York of National Review that the idea of a president meeting with the likes of the Iranian president or Hugo Chavez was "naïve.")
Those were alarming mistakes. To me Biden's most discordant claims concerned his Animal House-like history lecture about the office of the vice president. It came while Biden was dressing down Dick Cheney, who was not present, for supposedly being unfamiliar with the Constitution. "The idea (that) he doesn't realize that Article I of the Constitution defines the role of the vice president of the United States – that's the executive branch – he works in the executive branch," Biden said. "He should understand that. Everyone should understand that. And the primary role of the vice president of the United States is to support the president of the United States of America, give that president his or her best judgment when sought, and, as vice president, to preside over the Senate, only in a time when in fact there's a tie vote. The Constitution is explicit....He has no authority relative to the Congress. The idea he's part of the legislative branch is a bizarre notion invented by Cheney to aggrandize the power of a unitary executive, and look where it has gotten us."
Lord, would Tina Fey have had fun with this jumble of misinformation – if only Palin had said it! Article I defines the legislative, not executive, branch. The vice president is, indeed, mentioned there. What Biden finds "explicit," hasn't been so to previous vice presidents or to most constitutional scholars. Prior to the 20th century, vice presidents didn't even have offices at the White House compound – they were housed in the Capitol. The notion that a veep's constitutional authority is to provide advice to a president springs from Biden's brow; it certainly isn't mentioned, or even contemplated, in the Constitution, which doesn't even say whether the vice president should receive a salary.
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.
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.
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 decision...so 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."