Media Attacks Are Smoke Screen

Washington Matters

Media Attacks Are Smoke Screen

For good reasons and bad, the news media is highly unpopular. Sometimes reporters go for the sensational over the  substantive, the easy blunt statement over the nuanced thought. Sometimes they simply get it wrong.

But attacking  the media is also a time-tested way for politicians to try to change a conversation taking a direction they don't like -- and that's clearly a key part of the strategy being employed in defense of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. And some Republican critics of the media are going way too far and are trying to mislead the public. Don't buy it -- unless, of course, you'd like the news media to stop doing its job.

Even GOP nominee John McCain, who has been accused of being overly cozy with reporters, got into the act. He scrapped a planned interview with CNN's Larry King because he was angry over the alleged mistreatment of a spokesman being questioned about Palin and her experience. The offense? Asking for specifics, after the spokesman claimed that Palin had plenty of foreign policy experience. What is especially outrageous -- and no, outrageous is not too strong a word -- is the fact that this is the exact type of question Republicans ask about Democratic nominee Barack Obama ... and complain that reporters do not press enough. (Which is also not true, at least not since mid-spring.)

Especially illustrative of the broader GOP approach was last night's speech by short-lived presidential candidate and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson. "Some Washington pundits and media big shots are in a frenzy over the selection of a woman who has actually governed rather than just talked a good game on the Sunday talk shows and hit the Washington cocktail circuit," he said at one point. At another he referred to "the other side and their friends in the media" and said they were all in a "panic."

Panic? Frenzy? Friends?

You're kidding, Fred, right? Please tell me you're kidding.

McCain and his troops spent most of the past month taking shots at Obama -- and they were all dutifully reported, to the point that the attacks and the coverage are broadly credited with helping McCain tighten the race. Obama scarcely needs more friends like that.

But far worse than that, such comments by Thompson and others are a blatant and even disgraceful attempt to equate the asking of legitimate questions with sensationalism and even partisanship. Speaker after speaker castigated media coverage that they said focused on Palin's "family," referring, of course, to the announcement -- made by the McCain-Palin campaign -- that her 17-year-old unmarried daughter was pregnant. There's a serious problem with this image of reporters talking endlessly about the pregnancy -- it's not quite true. While of course there has been considerable coverage, most of it came Monday when it was announced. Since then coverage has focused on a variety of questions, most having nothing to do with Palin's daughter -- is she experienced enough? Will a probe into her firing of a top official turn up anything? Did she advocate Alaska pulling out of the union? Did she seek millions in federal funds for special projects while portraying herself as an opponent of such earmarks? Did McCain single out some of those projects as examples of unnecessary federal spending?

And many questions related to her daughter are perfectly legitimate. Is it fair to expose her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, and the father of her baby (who will attend the convention with his wife to be), to the inevitable attention and media coverage they will receive because of her mother's selection as McCain's running mate? Did Palin cut funds for a program aimed at teen mothers?

Voters want and need to know about their candidates: What do they stand for? Are they sincere? Are they trustworthy? Can they handle the job? Does their record match their words?

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So obviously there is nothing wrong with efforts by Republicans to raise questions about Obama's lack of experience and his changing of positions on issues. What is wrong is decrying the raising of similar questions about one of their candidates as some disgusting frenzy -- and knowing that the attacks are a deliberate political strategy. That smacks of a cynicism jarring even in this age of cynical partisanship.