There was not much of a honeymoon between Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and the press.
Coverage has turned personal and invasive against the Republican vice-presidential nominee, pitting journalists intent on “vetting” a newcomer against those who say such treatment is unfair, biased - and sexist.
Mrs. Palin first was treated with giddy curiosity by the news media, portrayed as a conservative “dream girl” in high heels, a magnet for disgruntled Democrats and an intriguing young foil for Sen. John McCain. News soon morphed into speculation about her family circumstances and lifestyle - and the possible effect on her suitability for office.
Some say the hubbub is justified, and that a vigorous press is part of high politics. Others contend that mischief is afoot.
“McCain picks her at the last moment, he knew about her background, yet he didn’t allow her to sit in front of the press and offer her own story. Sarah Palin must know that if you go on to the national scene, you’re going to get creamed. This isn’t like applying for the city council. She chose to make her pregnant daughter and family part of the coverage when she accepted the nomination,” said Taylor Marsh, a progressive talk-radio host and blogger.
“The media isn’t being sexist here. McCain thinks Sarah Palin is ‘Miss Republican 2008,’ a woman who could bring in Hillary Clinton’s supporters. Now the press must ask whether she is ready to possibly be the commander in chief. It is the duty of the news media to vet those in high politics. That’s our responsibility.”
Some say the press is clearly awry.
“It’s completely fair to question Palin’s experience, question her record, and question her judgment. Every candidate should expect that. But what’s jaw-dropping here is how a supposedly feminist media elite can so abruptly drop all their principles and start questioning whether a mother of five can handle this job. They don’t only look biased, but extremely partisan and opportunistic,” said Tim Graham of the Media Research Center.
Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America, agreed. “The choice of Governor Palin is exposing the rank hypocrisy of the ‘enlightened’ gatekeepers of the mainstream media.”
“While some blame bloggers or Democrats for the most appalling rumors or smears, the mainstream media has also been eager to focus their obsessive coverage - not on Governor Palin’s accomplishments - but her personal decisions as a woman. Decisions for which the media clearly have visceral contempt,” she said.
A sympathetic public could ultimately favor Mrs. Palin, she added, faulting journalists who offer more favorable coverage to Sen. Barack Obama, and those who appear to think “that the Palins should have chosen abortion over giving life to a special-needs child or teenage pregnancy.”
Phil Pedlikin, president of the Down Syndrome Association of Northern Virginia, said the coverage of Mrs. Palin as the mother of a child with Down syndrome has been very mixed.
“We have found it frustrating that, even though Governor Palin has never suggested it, quite the opposite really, the emphasis of many reports has been on the ‘burden’ that she faces because her child has Down syndrome. Also, she is sometimes portrayed as a hero because of this additional ‘burden.’ We are not heroes because we have children with Down syndrome. Our children are the heroes,” Mr. Pedlikin said.
Mr. McCain did not mask his displeasure with the press. He canceled an appearance on CNN on Tuesday after the network aired a particularly combative exchange between anchor Campbell Brown and Tucker Bounds, a McCain spokesman, who was called upon to defend Mrs. Palin’s abilities.
CNN correspondent Jack Cafferty countered Wednesday by suggesting Mr. McCain find another running mate.
“This vetting controversy is a faux media scandal designed to destroy the first female Republican nominee for vice president of the United States who has never been a part of the old boys’ network that has come to dominate the news establishment in this country,” said Steve Schmidt, a senior campaign adviser.
“This nonsense is over. It’s time to begin the debate,” he added.
The caterwaul, however, could very well be just another factor at the nexus of contemporary politics and media, however. The speed of unfolding events also played a role.
“With Barack Obama, the media had the luxury of vetting him and his unique family situation over a lengthy period of time. With Sarah Palin, they are looking at a public figure who is largely unknown in a very compressed time frame. The level at first was sort of friendly - journalists were asking what she would bring to the campaign, could she bring in Hillary Clinton supporters,” said Mark Jurkowitz of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
“Then the inevitable happened. The questions about who she is, and what we really know about her have been asked in an intense burst. It could subside after the convention and campaigning gets under way - or if there are other revelations worth exploring,” he said.