Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Sarah Palin: Wagging the dog in Dodge City

I believe I’d fire any reporter who wasted a chance to question Gov. Sarah Palin by asking a single question about pregnancies, DUIs or thuggish boyfriends.

An extraordinary two-month drama is now unfolding about her nomination as a vice presidential candidate, and its resolution will demonstrate a great deal about the ability and capacity of press to perform genuine public service journalism in an era of Dodge City bloggers and Wag the Dog manipulations. Much hangs in the balance.

Jay Rosen spins out an ominous and all-too-plausible scenario over at Huffington Post, examining how and why Republican strategists may be able to manipulate press performance and public reaction in the Palin drama. You ought to read the whole thing; I found these two points especially compelling in light of what I’ve been thinking about this:

Sarah Palin, under intense pressure ... gives a charismatic performance on Wednesday of convention week and wows much of America, outdrawing Obama in the ratings and sending a flood of cash to McCain and the GOP.
* Strategy: bingo, that's your big break. A wave effect is unleashed by a stunning televised performance. It is shock and awe in the theater of the post-modern presidency.

Journalists watching all this keep saying to themselves: wait until she gets out on the campaign trail. Wait until she sits for those interviews with experienced reporters and faces a real press conference.
* Strategy: double down on defiance by never letting her answer questions, except from friendly media figures who have joined your narrative; like Cheney with Fox. No meet the press at all. No interviews of Palin with the DC media elite-- at all. De-legitimate the ask. Break with all "access" expectations. Use surrogates and spokesman, let them get mauled, then whip up resentment at their mistreatment. Answer questions at town halls and call that adequate enough.

Let me say right away that I expect Sarah to wow the television audience today. She is indeed charismatic and telegenic and performs superbly on script. Alaskans know this, and won’t be at all surprised when America discovers what a likable and engaging person their governor is.

I think that’s a good thing. Leaders in a democracy ought to be likable and able to persuade people to follow them. In many ways, that’s one of Barack Obama’s main qualifications.

The danger is that the Palin narrative will get caught up for the remainder of this campaign in discussion of her daughter, her husband’s driving record, the brutish My Space comments of Bristol’s alleged boyfriend. Nobody will ask – or maybe even get a chance to ask – what she would do about the economy if she inherited the desk in the Oval Office. She won’t get quizzed about NATO’s role in the post-Soviet world. She won’t get questioned about why she never bothered to visit most of the states she’s campaigning in, much less any of the rest of the world.

That will be a huge loss for American voters. Selection of a vice presidential candidate is always about picking a president-in-waiting, perhaps never more so than for John McCain. He would be the eldest first-term president in history and he’s had recurrent bouts of cancer – the kind that killed my little brother. The notion of his vice president succeeding him is not theoretical.

I spent the long Labor Day weekend in Juneau, Alaska, at my god daughter’s wedding. (She’s smart and gorgeous and her beau is a champ, since you asked). I talked with dozens of politically connected, longtime Alaskans. Most had good things to say about Palin. Not one of them thought she was qualified to lead the free world.

That won’t be true of most Alaskans, a fiercely territorial breed who will rally around one of their own, but it’s reason enough to demonstrate why her qualifications need thorough, sober examination.

Anchorage Daily News Editor Pat Dougherty made many excellent points in describing the coverage scenario for Editor & Publisher magazine. Michael Kinsley was characteristically witty in his observations at Slate (see No Experience Necessary), where Jack Shafer was even more on point (Hurricane Palin). One sample:

Thanks to McCain's miscue, everything the press touches about Palin turns into a scoop: her earmark flip-flops, her political inexperience, her Alaska Independence Party connection, her views on teaching "creationism," her book-banning phase, plus the "troopergate" scandal, her husband's ancient DUI, and her pregnant teenage daughter. And the press rampage has only just begun.

Rosen’s description of this exercise as “the theater of the post-modern presidency” might just as aptly be “the theater of the post-modern press.” We’ve talked here before about the end of the gatekeeper era of journalism, and that’s manifestly on display today. Blogs with millions of readers feel free to charge Gov. Palin faked her pregnancy to cover up for her daughter, and then (as far as I can see) remove the offending post after it’s debunked. GOP media handlers get away with hiding a newly named vice presidential nominee away from any press contact at all for days.

The old order is gone, with all its faults and all its checks and balances. We’re in new territory today, and it’s a dangerous land. I don't pretend to know how this will turn out.

To paraphrase the benediction we hear so often at political conventions, “God bless the press, and God bless the United States of America.”


  1. Anonymous1:19 PM

    After these buyouts, there are no reporters left to fire. You could always cancel AP, which seems to be the latest cost-cutting craze.

  2. Anonymous1:20 PM

    So a reporter who asks a politician who supports abstinence-only sex education whether she has any second thoughts about that position after the pregnancy of her 17-year-old daughter deserves to be fired?

    Great way to ensure more teenage girls and boys become parents.

  3. Anonymous1:31 PM

    Most idiotic column I've ever read. Firing a reporter for asking a question? Were you ever a reporter, or have you been a do-nothing executive all your life. It's the sit-back-and-do-nothing attitude like yours that has brought the newspaper industry to today's low point. How do you think your organization's reporters feel when executive threaten to fire them for asking simple questions readers want answered?

  4. Anonymous1:38 PM

    You write:

    "The danger is that the Palin narrative will get caught up for the remainder of this campaign in discussion of her daughter, her husband’s driving record, the brutish My Space comments of Bristol’s alleged boyfriend. Nobody will ask – or maybe even get a chance to ask – what she would do about the economy if she inherited the desk in the Oval Office. She won’t get quizzed about NATO’s role in the post-Soviet world. She won’t get questioned about why she never bothered to visit most of the states she’s campaigning in, much less any of the rest of the world."

    That's exactly the point. Reporters who wish to ask questions that might be seen as detrimental to Palin won't be allowed to pose those questions to her. The GOP won't allow it. And the Washington Press Corps? Too afraid to lose their opportunity to pal around with the powers that be even if they got that chance.

  5. Anonymous1:51 PM

    I think this is a well-reasoned post, actually, but here's the acid test: When the "scoops" about Palin's family life come out, how will McClatchy papers cover them? They'll get big play in many outlets. So, does Howard's sentiment play itself out on the newspapers he's leading? That will be interesting to see.

  6. Anonymous2:02 PM

    I do believe I would fire anyone who is ridiculous enough to use the word "beau" to describe his daughter's boyfriend.

  7. Anonymous2:13 PM

    Calling the selection of Palin a "miscue" tells me everything I need to know about press bias.

  8. Anonymous2:19 PM

    Howard, did you fly on the McClatchy jet to Juneau? Just wondering, I mean with the buyouts announced today and the salary freeze last week...and I agree with Anom above, you will have a tough time finding anyone to fire with all the cuts...maybe you fellas at corporate should take a whack at your end there at the "top" and not hack away at the core of the papers, the people actually doing the work.

  9. Anonymous2:20 PM

    Also, the "witty" Kinsley piece is a run-of-the-mill partisan hack-job.

    Anybody who can't tell the difference between the press's shredding of Palin and the free pass it's given Obama -- who never would have made it out of the Dem primary had he faced similar "scrutiny" -- simply is not paying attention. Or has an agenda.

  10. Anonymous2:20 PM

    Wonderful how quickly executive ranks line up behind the Republican ticket. So put out the word to your reporters to lay off Palin, but it is too late. We now have blogs and other forms of communication to get around gatekeepers like you who only want to suppress news, rather than disseminate it.

  11. I think we should put Anon 220 Witty in a steel cage match with Anon 220 Wonderful. Just saying.

  12. Anonymous2:27 PM

    The executives "lining up behind the Republican ticket" were a little slow with the word to lay off Palin, I guess. Just saying.

  13. Anonymous2:44 PM

    "what she would do about the economy"

    She left her little town millions of dollars in debt due to her bungling of a property acquisition that any of a thousand city managers handle as a matter of course at any given time.

    Pretty much sums up how she's handle the economy....

  14. Ummm. I believe the author here said he would fire a reporter who "wasted a chance to" ask those questions.

  15. Anonymous2:50 PM

    2:44, link please.

  16. Not all of the old order is gone at McClatchy. The omniscient tyrant editor who micromanages from afar is regrettably extant.

  17. I've heard from some (though none by name) who take offense at my lead here. I intended it to be read as emphasis, obviously intended for effect rather than literal warning. Guess not.

    But if you read it carefully, you'll see my sentiments don't reflect any kind of condemnation of inquisitive reporting, just a heart-felt plea for proportion and serious, public service journalism.

    If you don't get that, I guess we just disagree.

  18. Anonymous6:44 PM

    Y'know, Howard, one could argue that the very fact that Palin got nominated and we're here talking about how McCain didn't fully vet her is a reflection of badly McClatchy has sapped the ADN of resources. If the ADN were as good as it was years ago, much more of the Palin record would have been out there already.

  19. Anon 644: What parts do you think weren't already in ADN? The pregnancy? They heard about it and rightly ignored it. Her flip-flopping behavior on the bridge to nowhere? All drawn from ADN reporting. Her opportunistic fights with GOP establishment? Earmarks? Again, all there.

    They don't seem to have questioned her foreign policy or national economic policy credentials in the past. Guess it didn't seem relevant until she got nominated ...

  20. Anonymous9:44 PM

    Hey Howard, papers are getting their butts kicked because their bosses think their publications are too high-and-mighty to ask character questions or go after gossip.

    For goodness sake, your papers got beat by the National Enquirer on the John Edwards affair. Now you're getting pounded by the blogs on Palin news that your Anchorage paper chose to ignore.

    Howard, the public wants to read this stuff. And they have a right to know.

    Consider this: Would McCain have selected Palin if the Anchorage paper reported the news about her daughter when it first heard about her pregnancy months ago?

    With today's competition in the media, papers must seek answers to both sides of a candidate -- the public ("Gov. Palin, what will you do about the economy and foreign relations if your VP?") and the private ("Gov. Palin, in choosing to become the VP nominee, did you consider how your daughter would be affected when the world learned she was pregnant?")

    Otherwise, papers are doomed because they end up following news others are not afraid to break.

  21. When a candidate, any candidate, engages in such hypocrisy as Palin has, yes it's news.

    If you stand up for abstinence-only education and your 17-year-old daughter gets herself pregnant that is, in fact, news. Just as is your clear lack of experience is in a race where experience was heretofore a major issue.

    Frankly, the press' major failing here was to be seen as coddling to Obama (hello SNL skits?!?) so that any attack on Palin, deserved or not, will be seen as only as an attack by the liberal media and ignored by a sizable portion of our citizenry.

  22. Anonymous11:18 PM

    The only thing dumber than McCain failing to vet Palin is the ADN knowing about the GOVERNOR'S PREGNANT DAUGHTER and deciding not to run the story.

    Somebody please go ahead and disconnect the editors there from life support. It's the only merciful thing to do.

  23. Anonymous11:20 PM

    -30-, there is absolutely no hypocrisy in an abstinence advocate's daughter becoming pregnant. I defy you to find and explain it.

    If anything, it proves the point. Abstinence works ever time it's tried. A parent can't force the child to try it.

    Also: Can you prove that Palin's daughter was not using birth control? That method has also been known to fail.

    I hope you're not a journalist, surely journalists are better critical thinkers than this...

  24. Anonymous11:28 PM

    11:18, McCain failed to vet Palin? Man, what a bunch of Kool-Aid drinkers ... Have you considered that he vetted her, and decided he wanted her on the ticket? Did you hear the speech? How about dealing in facts?

  25. Anonymous6:08 AM

    Howard --

    Again, your posts demonstrate with great clarity why daily newspapers are apparently incapable of avoiding collapse.

    Why do you think that people like and want you NOT to tell them things like when Palin's daughter is pregnant? This is big, legit news. People want to know about this - and all the meanings good or bad - whether you deem it proper or not.

    And further, you seem to think that elections are a matter of voters studying the "issues" and then choosing the candidate who best matches their desire for specific policies on the "key issues of the day."

    Are you really that naieve? Do you honestly believe that the typical American voter is seriously weighing "NATO's role in the post-Soviet world?" Most Americans don't know what NATO is and they don't care even though they should.

    The simple fact is that most Americans are driven by personality and style. A 50 inch thumbsucker in the local paper is not going to change that.

    Most voters at this point seem to be most concerned about whether the candidate is "like them" as opposed to being a fat cat who cannot relate to "real people." I see no evidence that the issues are making any difference in this campaign. The only proposal that has moved public opinin is McCain's call for offshore drilling in the U.S., which despite the well-reported facts that it probably will not help much, or anytime soon, has won wide support.

    Here is one key for your survival - drop the idea that you have the right to determine what is and is not news. If your customers (and that is what they are) say something is news, get to work covering it. Your best service is to do so accurately.

  26. Anonymous6:10 AM

    This really is a stupid column. Fire a reporter for delving into Palin's past? Like that would be a bad thing? Your attitude is a big reason why the newspaper business is in the toilet right now...What should be asked of Palin? What makes the Washington "elite media" more worthy of interviewing her than someone who is versed in the issues who works for a mid-sized metro somewhere?

  27. Anonymous7:16 AM

    Yes. Spend a column talking about a story. Then fire anyone who dares report it. Does it occur to anyone that the systematic dismantling of the nation's press by the investor class is anything more than a happy accident?

  28. Anonymous7:21 AM

    Wow, Howard. Congrats on the crossover traffic from the wingnuts and newspaper bashers! Now back to business.

    As one of your MNI reporters, I appreciate you clarifying way up above that you wouldn't actually fire reporters for asking questions, as you said you would in your lead. (A gentle writing reminder here: Exaggeration in the pursuit of making a point sometimes comes across better in person than in print. I'm just saying.)

    In the welter of crap posts, some previous Anon made mentioned that if ADN had covered the Palin daughter's pregnancy months ago -- vetted it for the world, in effect -- then maybe it wouldn't be an issue now.

    And as one poster pointed out, the prurient and sleazy (my words, not his) are what seems to drive readers' interest these days. Certainly not NATO treaties with the Soviets.

    As responsible journalists, we're no longer the gatekeepers of information. But God knows we still need to attract readers and (let's say it together) drive Internet traffic.

    So what are your thoughts on balancing all those things in a responsible way?

  29. Howard --
    Before you fire any reporters for asking questions, please consider this from an AP analysis piece this morning:

    The Republican message about the Palin offspring comes across as contradictory: Hey, media, leave those kids alone — so we can use them as we see fit.

    If you doubt this scenario, consider this: On Wednesday morning, a teenage boy from Alaska stood in a receiving line on an airport tarmac, being glad-handed by the potential next president of the United States — because he got his girlfriend pregnant. TV cameras were lined up in advance. The mind boggles.

    "Either the children are out of bounds, and you don't put them in the photo ops, or you don't complain when somebody wants to talk about them. You can't have it both ways," said John Matviko, a professor at West Liberty State College in West Virginia and editor of "The American President in Popular Culture."

    "Right now, it looks like they're being used by the campaign more than the media are using them," he said.

  30. Jim Richardson: You MUST sit down and write those thoughts as an op-ed, right now.

  31. Anonymous9:07 AM

    I can't figure out what Howard's first sentence means.

  32. Anonymous9:27 AM

    Read the comments on articles on Palin, Alaskans are not rallying around one of their own.

    Also: "Let me say right away that I expect Sarah to wow the television audience today"

    If you were referring to Biden in the same context, would you call him "Joe"?

  33. Anonymous10:24 AM

    "Blogs with millions of readers feel free to charge Gov. Palin faked her pregnancy to cover up for her daughter, and then (as far as I can see) remove the offending post after it’s debunked." This is a factual assertion, it needs to be sourced.

  34. Anonymous10:47 AM

    While I do not think anyone should be going after candidates' children, I agree that in this case, it's important to ask questions about Bristol Palin's pregnancy. At a time when teen pregnancy is on the rise while politicians like Palin respond by advocating abstinence-only education, it's fair to ask her about it. Especially when many people who support Palin are using the situation in their favor by saying things like "Oh, this proves she has values because the girl didn't have an abortion." Is it the most important thing about Palin? No. Is it valid? Yes.

    There are ways to ask about it that are more sensitive than not, but it should be on the table.

  35. Anon 1024: It was dailykos; I read the original items there, then went back later to see whether they'd corrected it; I couldn't find it, but did find complaints that it had been removed.

    Anon 1047: Why didn't you write my post in the first place? It would have saved me some trouble if I'd been as precise and nuanced as you. Thanks.

  36. Howard,
    I posted my name to my protest at your lede. My post was made an hour before you claimed no one had put their name to their objections.

    In case I was too subtle, I think your threat of firing reporters was an example of the petty micromanagement style that chills reporting. You can't anticipate every circumstance under which a reporter will interview Palin. You should look at the context of the inteview instead of pronouncing policy from a distance.

  37. Apologies for missing you, then, Bradley.

    As I have now said repeatedly here and in another post, I do see that people took me far more literally than I intended, and that's my mistake to own. I continue to believe you and others could profit from reading in context and judging by history in addition to seeing spooks under the bed.

    And for the record, the only McClathchy journalist I have the authority to fire is Washington Editor David Westphal. No reporters work for me, and their editors (believe me) can stand up for them.

  38. Anonymous11:36 AM

    there is every reason to believe that palin will NEVER have to face press/public questioning in this campaign (aside from her lone debate). the press, however, CAN have an impact by REPEATEDLY reminding voters how infrequently she does submit to public questioning.

    the media also should make it clear to voters that it represents the public every bit as much as elected officials by asking relevant, knowledgeable questions on subjects the public doesn't have time to keep track of.


  39. Anonymous11:44 AM

    While I am critical of Howard on other points, I have to agree that he was obviously not to be taken literally with the suggestion of firing reporters....come on people..

  40. Anonymous12:29 PM

    Well what did he mean????

  41. Anonymous12:31 PM

    Reading back your response — you meant it for emphasis? To emphasis what exactly?

  42. Anonymous12:42 PM

    No offense -- this is just for emphasis -- but you are a strange duck to me.
    I just don't get your point.
    The only new order I see here is that thankfully the news landscape is diffuse enough so the RNC can't fully control what we see and hear about their candidates. More voices means more truth. It might be messy, but do you really want to go back to fewer people (perhaps yourself) controlling access to what we see or hear? You can't be a pro-life candidate against teaching birth control to teens and expect no one to freak out at the revelation you have a 17yo pregnant daughter. Me, I want all the bad parts of my life off-limits to the press. How do I ensure that? Well, for one, not running for the second-most high profile job in one of the most powerful democracies on Earth.

  43. Anonymous1:31 PM

    Bloggers and the National Enquirer (yikes) have broken some important stories, and while they may have more misses than hits, give me more news outlets, please.

  44. Anonymous2:00 PM

    11:36, your first sentence is a laughable absurdity, given the public grilling of Palin for the days following her nomination. Do you read or watch the news, ever?

  45. Howard,
    Thank you for the reply. What you need to understand is how much weight your words carry at your level. Do you really expect reporters to think you don't really mean it when your language invites allusions to Henry II? - "Who will rid me of this troublesome reporter?"

    For the record, this has nothing to do with Palin per se, and everything to do with the gap between what managers think they say, and how their message is interpreted.

  46. Anonymous2:53 PM

    Howard, as a retired (thank God) MNI employee I suggest you go back and read the first sentence of your post. Perhaps it answers the question of why staffers are afraid to include their names when offering criticism here. If you'd fire someone for asking a valid question, what's to stop you from firing them for talking back to the boss? These are bad times, Howard, and even joking about journalists losing their jobs is out of line. You should have known better.

  47. Anonymous3:16 PM

    Wow Howard, you didn't own that mistake for very long, did you? I guess the buck would stop with you if you knew how to make one.

    "As I have now said repeatedly here and in another post, I do see that people took me far more literally than I intended, and that's my mistake to own. I continue to believe you and others could profit from reading in context and judging by history in addition to seeing spooks under the bed.''

  48. Anonymous8:34 PM

    Howard, maybe with your curious cavalier attitude you should just fall on your sword and admit you are an out of touch manager. You may have been a great editor in a previous life but you have lost your way. Blinded by your monstrous salary and laughable perks, you are NOT one of us. You and Gary should fall on your swords and give your over inflated salaries back to the people ACTUALLY doing the work. I read this blog regularly and find your responses laughable and reprehensible. considering the shape our company is in. The "foot soldiers" out in the trenches are doing all the work and you sit up their in your Sacramento office and claim to be in "touch". What a joke. You guys are stripping the reporting staff at MCI papers to the bone....where are the cuts in Sacramento? Oh, I'm sure you had to cut back in your are a joke and represent everything wrong with the newspaper arrogant, self serving CORPORATE buffoon. Enjoy your life.

  49. Anonymous10:47 PM

    Bitter much?

  50. Anonymous7:17 AM

    Wait, Howard gets pedicures?

  51. All of this concern about Sarah Palin's qualifications seems a bit hollow now that we have elected the most poorly vetted candidate to ever win the presidency.
    Where were the tough questions and background checks before the election?