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Reporters Need to take a Deep Breath

September 9, 2008

As a former newspaper reporter it was hard for me to overlook the antics of the mainstream media this past week for its low-road coverage of Republican vice presidential nominee Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin.

We covered the evolution of today’s political reporters in my June 18, 2008, column, Where Have all the Reporters Gone, and you might want to reread that article in the archive section of the website.

I recall as a young reporter what my editor at The McKeesport Daily News said to me: "Robb, when you sit down to write the story - it’s only you and the typewriter." He was saying that reporters can write whatever they want - but his point was that I had responsibility to be factual, fair and objective. He also was saying that reporting the truth is an honor system.

Technology in the news business has changed a great deal in the 35 years since I was given that astute advice - but the rest of journalism is the same - reporters have a public trust not to take sides. Unfortunately, the media is using something called news analysis to write opinion in news articles - not just the facts.

This is partly the reason that voters could not possibly hold the mainstream press in any lower esteem than they do today -- but journalists might have exceeded these low expectations in their initial coverage of Governor Palin.

The predictable result was an overwhelming backlash in favor of the McCain-Palin ticket which hurt the political prospects of Obama-Biden. Reporters were so surprised by McCain’s selection of Palin that they questioned everything - including the selection process itself. They stooped so low as to theorize that McCain might die any day now from a recurrence of his bout with skin cancer - leaving us this little-known Governor from Alaska to be President.

It was awful.

But the press’s focus on Governor Palin’s credentials to be President is reminiscent of what they said about Ronald Reagan in 1980 - that he was a "B movie actor" who was out of his league running for President of the United States.

Fortunately voters judge qualifications for themselves and they often focus on personal attributes overlooked by the press. The public is also rightfully questioning the motives of what reporters are saying about the Palin selection and it has fed into the theory that the mainstream media is doing all it can to help Obama win.

The truth is voters see most of the coverage about Palin as slanted  - especially when news reports repeatedly question her ability to be vice president and still be a good mother to her five kids and the continuous coverage given to her pregnant 17-year old daughter.

The media’s coverage is also having the unintended consequence of taking Obama off the front pages. The public - once fixated on Obama - cannot now get enough of Governor Palin. She is bringing large and enthusiastic crowds to every McCain campaign stop and Republicans are united and excited about the prospects of winning in November.

Meanwhile, the public seems to be giving Palin a thumbs up on the question of qualifications - and this could be the start of game-set-match for Obama. The polls are swinging toward McCain particularly in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Colorado. Once promising states for Obama such as Virginia and Missouri are fading as voters begin to harden their support for McCain-Palin.

It’s not too late for Obama to turn things around but the campaign must not engage in the Palin debate - they will not win that one. She will sink or swim in future debates and along the campaign trial. Anything that’s legitimate about her days in office as Governor will come out in due course. 

The Obama campaign needs to focus on what Obama will do as President - that’s a winning strategy. He might also chastise his friends in the media for their handling of Palin and tell them to back off. That would put the country first, stop the backlash, and be a good campaign strategy.

He needs voters to again look at him as a different kind of politician.