A friend (in real life and on Facebook), Sheena McFarland, notified me yesterday she had joined the Facebook open group “Sarah Palin, Hold a Press Conference.” The group has somewhere around 111 members, including Salt Lake Tribune reporter McFarland. The title is nicely self-explanatory—an open invitation for the hockey mom/pit bull GOP vice presidential pick to open herself up to media questions.
Serious press scrutiny of Palin has been scarce. Not that members of my profession haven’t tried. Reporters have fanned out across Alaska, digging for records of her budgets and vetoes; evidence of an executive jet for sale on eBay; drastic cuts (or not) to her state’s special education budget. That’s all good. Her history and executive record are easy enough to dig up.
What the country doesn’t know yet is how this woman thinks on her feet. How will she come across without the benefit of scripted remarks from a dozen speechwriters and a teleprompter? Millions of Americans adore the way Sarah growls at all those urban elitists, loves her baby and wears her sassy updo, but she has yet to answer how she might progress on the issue of terrorism in Pakistan, and how she could bring stability to a country that seems destined to implode upon itself and its neighbors any day now.
We learned earlier this week that the McCain-Palin campaign has hand-picked ABC News anchor Charles Gibson to be the first journalist to interview Palin, sometime this week. Presumably Gibson will treat Palin with the “respect and deference” McCain campaign manager Rick Davis says reporters must learn to show her. Davis told Fox News’ Chris Wallace this week that Palin is not afraid of the press. That was after he blasted the way reporters (and that exploding group of free agent commentators—bloggers) had dissected Palin and her imperfect family following the convention. Davis said the campaign would hold back on solo Palin appearances—she has yet to venture forth on the campaign trail without McCain—until a “less hostile” media environment showed itself.
Palin is asking voters to trust her with running this country. The media owe her no deference whatsoever. The term “deference” is synonymous with “submission. The term “deference” implies that an independent media is somehow expected to yield or bend to McCain and Palin’s will. That’s not going to happen. The time will come when Palin is on her own, and the press will do its job—ask her a question, then ask her again. Sarah should apply her lipstick and hunker down. The questions are coming.
In her convention speech, Palin got her sneer in gear, curling her upper lip and squinting her designer-spectacled eyes as she all but dared the press to chase her down.
“As I’ve learned quickly these past few days, that 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. Americans expect us to go to Washington for the right reasons, and not just to mingle with the right people.”
Palin’s problem—and her handlers’, who decided it’s a campaign strategy to play to conservatives’ cynical view of a free press—is her failure to distinguish between working reporters and commentators/bloggers. She would have Americans believe it’s all one big puddle of mud out there, where opinions, outrage and theatrics are every bit as good as a hard news story built on public records, interviews with independent sources and fact checking.
The Daily Kos and Drudge Report aside, thousands of news reporters and editors still have an interest in digging for factual information and fairness in covering the candidates. Working as a member of the press is a job that ranks by name in the U.S. Constitution. (Or as National Public Radio’s David Folkenflik recently told KUER 90.1 FM’s Doug Fabrizio, “It’s one of only two professions specifically named in the Constitution, along with bail bondsmen.”
Reporters will never insist on being popular. They aren’t lobbyists. They don’t sidle up to special interests. They are known to sit sometimes for hours outside a mayor’s office, or to lurk in state capitol hallways waiting to ambush public servants who refuse to return their phone calls or e-mails. Their job is to ask the tough questions: Where did the money go? Why did you close a public meeting? Did you take that bribe?
In fact, if reporters all over this country weren’t trying like hell right now to bore into Sarah Palin’s work history, philosophy of life and ability, she’d have even more to sneer about during her next public appearance.
The press lives to keep politicians like Palin honest. Americans expect it. Get used to it, Sarah Palin. Hold a press conference.