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Stenography 101: How the press let Palin and Cheney rig the system

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From Media Matters

Not content with its lapdog coverage of President Bush over the past decade, the Beltway press has adopted a new, super-soft way to deal with Bush's former vice president, Dick Cheney, as well as GOP media star Sarah Palin. Journalists have set aside what had been decades' worth of guidelines and embraced special new rules for how Cheney and Palin get treated.

In a word, it's stenography.

That's how too many scribes have covered Cheney and Palin in recent months, allowing them to dispense tightly controlled pieces of information, which journalists then trumpet as breaking news. And yes, the trend is unprecedented in modern day American politics.

It's actually a two-fer. First, it's unprecedented because the Beltway press has never showered attention on political losers, such as Cheney and Palin. Meaning, the press has never cared what a former VP had to say about current events right after leaving the White House (think: Dan Quayle), or what a failed VP candidate had to say just months after losing in a landslide (think: Geraldine Ferraro). Traditionally, pundits and reporters disdain political losers (think: Mike Dukakis). But for Cheney and Palin, the rules have been generously reworked.

The second oddity is that journalists now allow Cheney and Palin to completely dictate the media ground rules and afford them the chance to have one-way relationships with the press. Palin, for instance, perhaps still bruising from her woeful 2008 media performances, still hasn't allowed herself to be interviewed by a single independent political journalist since she launched her book in November. Instead, she mostly communicates with the mainstream media via Facebook. And now that she's signed on to join the Fox News staff, the chances of Palin ever speaking with the serious press seem to be less than zero. That lack of openness stacks the deck and leads to dreadful bouts of stenography; of literally recording what controversial Republicans say, and nothing more.

Of course, the Cheney brand of stenography has been trademarked by the news crew at Politico, and recently reached its unfortunate, albeit predictable, crescendo when the outlet simply reprinted Cheney's latest Obama-hating "statement" (read: press release) in the wake of the failed terrorist attack aboard the Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit on Christmas Day. What happened was that following the botched attack, either Cheney reached out and provided Politico with an exclusive statement, or Politico contacted Cheney asking for one. (It's not clear who contacted whom. And yes, journalistically, it matters.)

Then Politico, rather than incorporating some of Cheney's comments in an actual news article about the political ramifications of the attempted terror strike, and rather than contacting Cheney for an actual interview where reporters could flesh out his comments with follow-up questions, simply reproduced Cheney's wildly inaccurate, and inflammatory, Obama's-making-us-less-safe "statement," in full. All 660 words of it.

The stenography became so unseemly that MSNBC's Chris Matthews even called Politico out: (See video at Media Matters)

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To make matters worse, when asked to defend Politico's Cheney-friendly stenography, editor John Harris mounted a completely illogical defense and refused to address the rather obvious complaints about the news outlet's outlandish practice of simply acting as a loving, unwavering conduit for Cheney. "Trying to get newsworthy people to say interesting things is part of what we do," was how, in the wake of the Cheney kerfuffle, Harris explained Politico to blogger Greg Sargent. Well, of course. Nobody objects to the pursuit of interesting quotes. That's what good journalists do. But they don't turn around and simply print the quotes as gospel, devoid of any context. Especially when the "interesting things" that "newsworthy people" actually consist of an avalanche of partisan lies.

The truth is, Politico used to at least send reporters over to Cheney's Virginia office in order to perform their stenography in person. Following a sit-down Q&A, this was the Politico lede from Feb. 9, 2009, under the doomsday headline: "Cheney warns of new attacks":

Former Vice President Dick Cheney warned that there is a "high probability" that terrorists will attempt a catastrophic nuclear or biological attack in coming years, and said he fears the Obama administration's policies will make it more likely the attempt will succeed [emphasis added].

That's right, Obama's "policies," which at the time were two weeks old, were endangering America and making it susceptible to nuclear attack. (Cheney doesn't really do subtleties.) On its face, the fearmongering claims were preposterous. But Politico's Mike Allen, Jim VandeHei, and John Harris played it straight. Worse, they played it as big, from-his-lips-to-our-ears news.

And let's not lose sight of just how extraordinary it was for Allen/VandeHei/Harris to even care what Cheney had to say in early February of 2009, because I can't stress enough how completely unprecedented it is for any major Beltway news outlet to turn to a dislodged vice president as a partisan newsmaker less than one month after he left office. And for Cheney to be the object of Politico's newsroom desire last February was even more bizarre since the Republican had just completed his stint as arguably the most unpopular politician in modern day White House politics. (Somewhere Richard Nixon was smiling.)

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That is not an exaggeration. According to a CBS/New York Times poll at the time of the Cheney's White House departure, his job approval rating stood at a how-is-that-possible 13 percent. Yet despite his historically poor standing with the public, and despite the fact that his party had just been trounced in an electoral landslide, and despite the fact that former VPs were never considered to be newsworthy just two weeks after they packed their White House bags, there was the Politico brain trust in February 2009, sitting at Cheney's knee ("Suddenly a man of leisure ... his own mood was relaxed, even loquacious") and treating him like he was still vice president -- treating him like he was a popular vice president. Treating Cheney like a man with all the answers.

For Palin, it hasn't just been Politico's staff that's adopted the unfortunate stenography approach to covering the failed VP candidate. The truth is that since the launch of her book last November, Palin has refused to sit down with a single serious, independent reporter. Instead, she's stuck close to lifestyle interviews (i.e. Oprah and Barbara Walters) as well as taking questions from her professional right-wing media enablers.

Can you imagine the media caterwauling if, for instance, Hillary Clinton published a book and then refused to sit down with a single nonpartisan cable TV host, radio talker, or political reporter from a major newspaper or magazine? If Clinton roped off the press while she only did interviews with The Nation, Rachel Maddow, and Air America? The Beltway press would go berserk mocking Clinton for her timidity. But Palin completely snubbed the D.C. press corps, and rather than calling her out, journalists rewarded her with probably tens of millions of dollars in free book publicity. (Not that most Americans even cared about her book launch.)

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Eric Boehlert is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush (Free Press, 2006). He worked for five years as a senior writer for, where he wrote extensively about media and politics. Prior to that, he worked as a (more...)

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Yet, is not the more urgent question why? The comp... by WML on Thursday, Jan 14, 2010 at 3:08:00 PM
It's hard to know what's going on. Palin is treate... by John S. Hatch on Thursday, Jan 14, 2010 at 3:47:38 PM
It's the unbelievable right-wing bias of the corpo... by Perry Logan on Friday, Jan 15, 2010 at 7:18:29 AM