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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 1/14/10

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

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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.)

Worse, Palin's refusal to engage directly with the press has, at times, led to confusion about what she did and did not say. The confusion may be purposeful on her part, but it hinders public debate and makes precise journalism nearly impossible. That trend was famously highlighted after Palin posted on Facebook her claim that proposed Democratic health care reform would mean bureaucratic "death panels" would ultimately decide whether Americans would live or die. (Palin specifically referenced her parents and her son as possible "death panel" targets.) Of course, the claim was thoroughly debunked and eventually named "Lie of the Year." In response to that dubious achievement, Palin returned to Facebook and claimed people had misunderstood her original "death panels" reference. It was an explanation some journalists echoed before Media Matters then debunked that as well.

But guess what? If Palin, like virtually every other politician on the planet, agreed to talk to real reporters on occasion, that kind of "confusion" would quickly be solved. Rather, Palin hides from the press. And instead of punishing her for her timidity, journalists act as dutiful stenographers by typing up Palin's online postings -- which she may or may not write herself -- and treating them as news.

From a journalism perspective, the whole spectacle has been embarrassing to watch. As David Weigel at The Washington Independent noted, " The media's indulgence of Palin's strategy -- which often results in pure stenography of press releases that may or may not have been written by her -- is ridiculous, bordering on pathetic."

And Weigel's right. Those Facebook postings are nothing more than modern-day press releases, yet they're treated as news. In the not-so-distant past, newsroom trash cans (both physical and email) were filled with politicians' press releases, tossed aside by dismissive scribes who would never dream of lowering themselves to regurgitating quotes typed up on some hand-out. Media elites didn't waste their time with press releases.

First of all, it's considered an embarrassment and a public acknowledgment that journalists don't have any juice; that they don't have real access to important people. Second, typed-up statements don't lend themselves to context or understanding. But for covering Palin, regurgitating press releases has suddenly become the accepted norm.

From a recent Wall Street Journal news article:

The White House is fending off charges from Republicans, who suggest the administration should have turned over Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to military custody and declared him an "enemy combatant."

Sarah Palin, former GOP vice presidential candidate, said in a Facebook message that Abdulmutallab is "not just another criminal defendant. It simply makes no sense to treat an al Qaeda-trained operative willing to die in the course of massacring hundreds of people as a common criminal." [emphasis added]

That's just nuts. If Palin steadfastly refuses to engage with journalists and insists on hiding behind her Facebook page, there's simply no reason reporters should give online press releases from a failed VP candidate (and half-term governor) the slightest bit of attention.

Indeed, if members of the Beltway press corps have any self-respect left, they'd call off the stenography sessions and get back to practicing real journalism.

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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 Salon.com, where he wrote extensively about media and politics. Prior to that, he worked as a (more...)
 

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