Media on the defensive over Palin coverage
News executives Thursday tried to shake off the excoriations of the media emanating from the Republican National Convention, defending their coverage of GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin as responsible and evenhanded.
While top television network officials and newspaper editors largely dismissed the critiques as partisan rhetoric, some fretted that charges of media bias had reached a new and disturbing level.
“I really do take exception to it,” NBC News President Steve Capus said. “These terms get thrown around in an awfully cavalier way, and they’re incredibly damaging. We’re in the business where words matter, and those are awfully, awfully strong accusations.”
Speaker after speaker pounded the media Wednesday night, accusing news organizations of slanted and sexist coverage in their reporting about the 44-year-old Alaska governor and her family.
“I’d like to thank the elite media for doing something that quite frankly I wasn’t sure could be done: and that’s unifying the Republican Party and all of America in support of Sen. [John] McCain and Gov. Palin,” said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to wild cheers in Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. “The reporting of the past few days has proved tackier than a costume change at a Madonna concert.”
The angry denunciations by Republican leaders spotlighted a dominant theme of the 2008 presidential campaign: the charge that the news media are a biased referee. It began in the primaries, when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign complained about sexist coverage, and has continued through the general election with accusations that the media are in Democratic nominee Barack Obama’s sway.
Attacking the media is not a new political tactic, of course. Still, the intensity of the complaints rose to such a pitch this week that they dominated the narrative of the race.
At nearly every turn, McCain’s campaign challenged the reporting on Palin, particularly questions raised about her 17-year-old pregnant daughter, Bristol. Senior McCain strategist Steve Schmidt said the media were displaying “a level of viciousness and scurrilousness,” and Cindy McCain called the coverage “insulting.”
David Westin, president of ABC News, said the intense focus on Palin -- who was not widely known before McCain tapped her as his running mate last week -- exacerbated a perception that the media were piling on.
“Some of what’s happened this week is inevitable when you have a true surprise,” he said. “You’re compressing months, if not years, of examination in a few days.”
Some in the media said the reporting went overboard. On MSNBC, host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman, said he was “stunned” by the focus on Bristol Palin “when there’s been an unwritten code that kids are off-limits.”
“There does seem that there’s been a feeding frenzy,” said Marty Ryan, Fox News’ executive producer of political coverage, adding that he thought his network “didn’t overdo it.”
But for the most part, news executives defended the handling of the story, noting that while blogs posted rumors about Bristol Palin, major news organizations did not report on her pregnancy until the McCain campaign announced it in a news release.
“I think we handled it fairly and in good taste,” said CBS News President Sean McManus. “Obviously, it makes one a little bit uncomfortable to talk about someone’s children. But it was part of the story, and we covered the story.”
Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, argued that the campaign first put the spotlight on Palin’s family.
“I believe you tread lightly when it comes to children, and our coverage of Gov. Palin’s children has been in response, I would say, to an invitation from the campaign,” he said. “They have thrust her children onto the stage: her son who is serving in the military, her daughter who is pregnant and about to be married.”
Attacking the coverage “rouses the base,” Keller added, and is an effort by the campaign to “sort of brush us back, maybe set narrower limits on what we write about.”
Newsroom leaders said the tactic would not be effective.
“Aggressive criticism of the media is part of the political landscape. We expect it,” said Russ Stanton, editor of the Los Angeles Times, adding that the paper’s staff is “not guided by any devotion to parties or personalities.”
CNN/U.S. President Jon Klein said the best way to combat the charges “is to continually do solid reporting.”
“We don’t want to engage in a war of slogans with professional sloganeers,” he added.
For all of the jabs at the media, there were signs the assault would not last. On Wednesday evening, McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds -- whose on-air tussle with CNN anchor Campbell Brown earlier in the week led the campaign to cancel McCain’s appearance on “Larry King Live” -- paid a visit to the CNN Grill, the cable network’s temporary eatery near the convention site in St. Paul, where he called the network “top-notch.”