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Media defend what politicians call "attacks"

From Hillary Rodham Clinton alleging sexism to the GOP decrying favoritism of Barack Obama, both Democrats and Republicans have complained for months about media coverage of the presidential campaign.

But the criticism took a new tone this week, as Sarah Palin spoke to the Republican National Convention. As journalists scrambled to vet the largely unknown vice presidential nominee, objections poured in from GOP notables ranging from McCain's campaign staff to Rudolph Giuliani, Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney.

The killer quote was from Palin's Wednesday speech: "If you're not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone. But here's a little news flash for all those reporters and commentators: I'm not going to Washington to seek their good opinion. I'm going to Washington to serve the people of this country."

Craig Crawford, a columnist for Congressional Quarterly, literally wrote the book on this strategy. Attack the Messenger looked at the first President George Bush's conflict with then-CBS anchor Dan Rather, explaining how politicians blunt journalists' effectiveness by alleging bias.

Crawford said the secrecy surrounding McCain' choice of running mate sparked a rush to investigate Palin, making allegations of piling on harder to refute.

The difference now? More journalists are pushing back.

"In the old days, the media remained silent during attacks, not wanting to be a part of the story," said Crawford of C.Q., which is owned by the St. Petersburg Times' parent company. "Now, I see more reaction. We need to be aggressive about reminding folks our job is to put facts on the table. It's voters' role to decide what to eat and what to push aside."

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen worries that the McCain campaign's criticism continues a tactic developed by the Bush administration, in which inconsistencies are never acknowledged and politicians refuse to concede that journalists are asking questions on behalf of the public.

So Palin can pose for press photos with her children but criticize attempts to write stories on their lives, and McCain's campaign can decry inaccurate reporting while refusing to make her available for questioning.

Rosen noted the public wasn't aware of reporting by the National Enquirer on Palin until McCain's campaign announced it. "It fuels their narrative of victimization and the culture war they've decided to wage," he said. "If they were really concerned about the impact of those stories, they would never talk on the record about them."

Tim Graham, director of media analysis for the conservative Media Research Center, said Republicans are concerned that Palin coverage is particularly harsh given the "cotton candy coverage" of Obama.

"People like me remember what they did to Dan Quayle in 1988, picking apart every little thing to criticize him," said Graham, who objected to stories about the pregnancy of Palin's unwed 17-year-old daughter.

Adding to the confusion is the way roles have blurred in media, with bloggers and cable pundits considered part of the same news mix as more evenhanded reporters from major news outlets.

Still, Michele Norris, co-host of National Public Radio's All Things Considered, said efforts to control how the press treats Palin likely won't succeed.

"America is fascinated with this person right now," Norris said. "We have 60 days until the election. And if we do our jobs as journalists, they will get those answers."

Media defend what politicians call "attacks" 09/05/08 [Last modified: Friday, September 5, 2008 11:37pm]
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