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Palin magnified to iconic status

- The Washington Times - Friday, September 12, 2008

Hockey mom, public official, media phenomenon.

Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is a cultural force in lipstick and high heels, the symbols of her feminity magnified by the press to iconic status. The media are fixated on the Republican vice-presidential hopeful, and coverage has been accused of being sexist and critical as partisan potshots turned to headlines.

Many headlines. The vetting of Mrs. Palin has been compressed into a short time frame. Since she was introduced less than two weeks ago, she has been the subject of 7,737 stories in U.S. newspapers, according to LexisNexis, the searchable archive for documents.

The "Palin phenomenon" is upon us, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ).

Mrs. Palin was a significant or dominant factor in 60 percent of all campaign coverage during the first week of September, according to a PEJ analysis of more than 500 news reports. She even outshone Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, who was a major factor in 52 percent of the stories.

Together, the pair bumped the Democrats from the stage. Presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama was a significant factor in 22 percent of the reports, and his running mate - Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. - in 2 percent.

"The first female GOP vice-presidential hopeful generated more coverage than Obama did [57 percent] a week earlier when he became the first candidate of color to accept a presidential nomination from a major party," noted Tom Rosenstiel, who directed the study.

For the next 72 hours, the nation must brace for of the Palin phenomenon in the news cycle. ABC News' exclusive trio of interviews with Mrs. Palin blanketed nine news programs on TV, radio and online on Thursday and Friday.

"You can't blink," she told anchor Charles GIbson, who grilled her about her experience, national security and foreign policy.

CNN will offer "Sarah Palin Revealed," a one-hour documentary, initially to air Saturday, with five follow-up broadcasts.

"She is a fascinating candidate. People want to know about her, and the way she has presented herself seems to have clicked with many Americans," said CNN senior executive producer Mark Nelson. "I don't think the scrutiny of her is over, and that scrutiny is the job of news organizations."

Is it too much?

"If the public didn't have this kind coverage, they'd wonder where it was," Mr. Nelson said.

Lycos, the Internet search engine, has cited a "Palin Palooza." She topped the list of all Web searches the first week of September, eclipsing such pop culture favorites as "Gossip Girl" and even YouTube queries. Interest in Mrs. Palin is up by 500 percent.

Mr. McCain enjoyed a bounce from it all - "a big assist from Palin," according to the Pew Research Center News Index, which gauges viewer behaviors.

The benefits were not the fallout from novelty or scandal coverage alone. In an accompanying Pew survey, seven-out-of-10 Americans said it was "important" to learn the details about Mrs. Palin's background, while 52 percent said she was "qualified to serve as president if necessary."

Mr. McCain now has, on average, a five percentage point advantage over his opponent in several national favorability surveys, including the venerable Gallup poll.

"McCain has a larger advantage over Obama on leadership than on any of the other eight character dimensions tested," said Gallup analyst Jeffrey M. Jones, referencing a survey of 1,022 adults conducted Sept. 5-7.

"He also leads Obama in terms of being honest and trustworthy, putting the country's interests ahead of his own political interests, being able to manage the government effectively, and being able to work with both parties to get things done in Washington," Mr. Jones noted.

Mrs. Palin has not had much time at bat, compared with Mr. Obama and her direct rival, Mr. Biden.

Her total time in the glaring national spotlight is 12 days. Mr. Obama's name has been bandied about ever since he made a high-profile keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. He announced his intention to run for president 19 months ago.

As for Mr. Biden, he has represented the state of Delaware since 1972 and has run for president himself - twice.

Instant fame has yielded coverage of Mrs. Palin that many consider biased. A Rasmussen Reports analysis released Wednesday found that 69 percent of the respondents agreed with the statement "reporters try to help the candidate they want to win."

Half of the 1,000 likely voters in the Sept. 8 survey said the press is trying to help Mr. Obama, and 11 percent said reporters favored Mr. McCain. Just over a quarter judged the coverage "unbiased."

And while "Lipstick Gate" and "Swiftboat Lipstick" have come and gone, the media frenzy over Mr. Obama's "lipstick on a pig" comment has bigger connotations, according to NBC News' Washington bureau chief, Mark Whitaker.

"This seems like a frivolous story, but I think it does tell us ... things that I think are important to watch. One is how good the McCain campaign is at hand-to-hand combat, at basically driving the news cycle day after day," he said Thursday.