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From AJR,   October/November 2008  issue

Searching for Sarah Palin   

Why the media’s intense scrutiny of the GOP vice presidential candidate is essential.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

Washington Post television writer Lisa de Moraes likes to say in her columns, "We watch so you don't have to."

The news media might say to John McCain's campaign, "We vet so you don't have to."

There has been no shortage of absurdity in the current presidential campaign, but few things are more ridiculous than the torrent of tears de crocodile shed over the big bad media's rough treatment of Sarah Palin.

From the start, the McCain forces have enjoyed deploying the Thrilla from Wasilla at staged events, where she was an instant smash, while shielding the GOP vice presidential candidate from the prying ways of those pesky journalists. McCain Campaign Manager Rick Davis set the ground rules early on when he said Palin would be kept safe from the Fourth Estate gaggle "until the point in time when she'll be treated with some level of respect and deference."

Deference? Really?

I know I read somewhere that the press was supposed to play a watchdog role in the American democracy. But maybe that's just too old-school. In our increasingly complex media and political environment, it's easier and easier to sidestep the MSM. But deference? Isn't that what got us all in trouble in the post-9/11 era, when the press rallied 'round the flag and failed to press the Bush administration hard enough in the run-up to the war in Iraq?

Besides, with her moose-hunting, Alaskan frontier persona, wouldn't you think Sarah Barracuda would be plenty tough enough to handle a bunch of effete, elite Beltway insiders?

And the campaign left the media no alternative. First of all, McCain picked as his No. 2 a candidate unknown to pretty much everyone but people who live in Alaska and William Kristol. And he did it, as the New York Times reported, with a pretty cursory investigation of the woman who would be the proverbial heartbeat away. The ensuing reporting has shown just how important media scrutiny is.

No, not the ditty about 17-year-old Bristol Palin's pregnancy. While that got a ton of media attention that served as fodder for outraged thunder from the right, it doesn't have anything to do with Sarah Palin's credentials to be vice president. I'm about as interested in that story as in the latest about Lindsay Lohan and Samantha Ronson, which is to say not at all. I'm thinking about the more substantive probing of Palin the politician and the person.

Remember Palin's alleged "thanks but no thanks" response to the world's most famous bridge, the Bridge to Nowhere? Well, turns out there was much more to the story. First of all, the Palinator was for it before..well, you know. And she certainly didn't say "no thanks" to the money; she spent it for other purposes. Worse than mischaracterizing her role was her refusal to scrap the storyline even after it was discredited. News organizations, to their credit, pointed that out. That's not "bashing," that's public service reporting.

Then there's the business about the much-ballyhooed earmarks. In her debut on the national stage, crusader Palin vowed to root out the "abuses of earmark spending in Congress." Makes sense when the man at the top of the ticket sometimes seems to regard earmarks as a bigger threat to the republic than the imploding economy and the military quagmires overseas.

But reporting showed that Palin was a born-again earmark hater. As mayor of Wasilla and then as governor, Palin was all about them. This year she sent Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Bridge to Nowhere) a request for $197 million worth of them – more per person, the Seattle Times reported, than any other state.

Now, seeking earmarks – funds for local projects that are not requested by the executive branch but rather by members of congress – is hardly a capital offense. Legions of politicians like nothing better than bringing home the bacon (or even the seitan) to their constituents. But it certainly is news when a national candidate makes the transition overnight from eagerly pursuing them to deploring them as the devil's handiwork.

The list goes on. There's the aggressive coverage of Troopergate, the investigation into whether Palin jettisoned Alaska's commissioner of public safety because he wouldn't fire a trooper who was in a custody battle with her sister. (Shouldn't this really be called Troopergate II, to distinguish it from the fondly remembered original Troopergate of the Clinton era? And will there ever be a time when we can just sit back and enjoy a scandal without having someone put a "gate" on the end of it?)

There's also been the exploration of whether Palin's oversight of the Alaska National Guard really gives her a foreign policy credential. (Not so much.) And there was the New York Times' investigation of Palin's governing style, which concluded, "Throughout her political career, she has pursued vendettas, fired officials who crossed her and sometimes blurred the line between government and personal grievance.."

None of this, of course, is a smoking gun. But it certainly paints a fuller, much more complex picture than the official narrative of the plainspoken woman of the people cum political reformer who just wants to clean up the mess in Washington.

Which is exactly what journalists are supposed to do.