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.
Not content with its
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
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
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
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
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)
To make matters worse,
when asked to defend Politico's
Cheney-friendly stenography, editor John Harris mounted a completely
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
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,
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.)
That is not an
exaggeration. According to a CBS/New York
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
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
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
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
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.
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 contributing editor for Rolling Stone. Boehlert has a bachelor's degree in Near Eastern studies from the University of Massachusetts and is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America.