Hitting an old foe: the media


Delegates to the Republican National Convention whirled in their seats en masse and called out from the floor: “Tell the truth! Tell the truth!”

The chants and finger-wagging were directed toward the sky boxes. Their target: the television networks and the rest of the “liberal mainstream media.”

It happened 20 years ago, as the GOP gathered in New Orleans, Times political writer Mark Z. Barabak recalled this week.


But the scene could have come from the convention floor Tuesday in St. Paul, where the Republican faithful began working out once again on a favorite punching bag. Their goal: to lessen the burden on Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, five election cycles after the media were lambasted because it dared to question the credentials of another would-be vice president, Dan Quayle.

The GOP deployed its principal spokespeople, elected officials, delegates and cable television surrogates with one essential message: Mess with our gal, Sarah, or her pregnant 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, and we will mess with you.

The latter point is worth heeding. (Even Barack Obama said that “people’s families are off limits, and people’s children are especially off limits.”) But only to a point.

I personally don’t need to know a lot more about Bristol and her hockey-playing, salmon-fishing, snowboarding beau, Levi. So the kids got a little crazy and Alaska will be populated by one more premature hockey mom.

I’m willing to wait for the People magazine photo spread of the new family, when the youngster delivers her “blessed” bundle, as the evangelicals are saying, into the world. (And that, by my calculation, should occur right around Inauguration Day.) But in the meantime, questions can and should continue to be asked about how much the McCain campaign knew not only about the premarital pregnancy but about Palin’s evolving position on Alaska’s “bridge to nowhere,” her actions regarding the firing of the state trooper who was once her brother-in-law and . . . who knows what other morsels are yet to emerge.

In some of those cases, like the pregnancy, the information is more significant for what it shows about McCain’s thoroughness and deliberations. Did the man who would be president get all the information? Did he review it thoroughly before he decided?

As I wrote last weekend, this is the sort of on-the-fly vetting that McCain risked when he picked a relatively green and obscure governor from a thinly populated state. He gained the element of surprise -- but had to hope that he wouldn’t be surprised.

That’s not to say all the revelations about Palin will be significant or fully formed.

For example, the ABC News website reported Monday that Palin was a member of a political party advocating a statewide vote on Alaskan secession. The Times on Tuesday repeated that information. But by midday, the McCain campaign had produced voter registration records showing that Palin had always been a Republican, even if she and her husband associated with members of the secessionist group.

On Tuesday, Time magazine’s online edition launched another Scud, quoting a former mayor of Palin’s small Alaska town as saying she had once inquired about banning certain books from the public library. Typical of today’s rush to post all political news first online, the story did not offer much detail. It didn’t even suggest which books might have been headed for the dumpster. Hmmmm.

So, a couple of tips for the news consumer: Gather your information from several outlets. And wait until the dust settles, because the first account may not always get it right.

GOP activists were not waiting, however, to put the clamps on the issue that had overshadowed their convention the day before.

It is hard to argue with calls for journalists to stay away from the governor’s teenage daughter and to stop traipsing around the property in Wasilla, where her boyfriend’s family lives.

But some of the criticism went overboard, as when CNN commentator and GOP heavyweight Bill Bennett pilloried his own cable network’s “outrageous” coverage. CNN’s crime? Airing of a story in which a sex-ed expert said abstinence programs don’t work.

Big Bill, come on now. CNN wasn’t speculating on young Bristol’s favorite aphrodisiac. It was moving beyond a titillating story to focus on an important social issue. Which seems like stand-up journalism to me.

It also seems perfectly reasonable to explore whether Gov. Palin was completely forthcoming about her family situation -- the teen pregnancy, her husband’s long-ago DUI and other issues -- when she was questioned by McCain’s people.

If no holes emerge in the campaign’s contention that it asked for, and got, full disclosure, then the political press should push the pregnancy story to the side in search of real news. (Don’t expect the tabloids to be so easily put off, though. This week’s cover of US Weekly: a picture of Sarah Palin, with the headline “Babies, Lies and Scandal.”)

The lack of mainstream media attacks on Bristol Palin didn’t stop true believers from uncorking on a favorite straw man.

The crowd groaned at the mere mention of the pregnancy issue during a panel here Tuesday morning. Idaho Lt. Gov. Jim Risch was one of several panelists who rose to defend Bristol’s honor. Risch dismissed all baby talk with a terse: “Next question.” And former McCain political aide Mike Murphy, now an NBC news-talker, ordered the media to “lay off the kid.”

Even the youngest delegate here, 17-year-old Mike Knopf, had fully digested the day’s “bad-media” message. “Despite what the liberal media is trying to say,” regurgitated young Knopf in an interview with Newsweek, “she has nothing to be ashamed of.”