Don't be swept away by hype in the Palin campaign
The media's job is to unearth facts, not repeat myths.
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But by Friday, an MSNBC commentator offered the breathy pronouncement that the McCain-Palin ticket "will be ahead in the polls by the end of the week." And on Sunday a long profile in The Washington Post pivoted on this sentence: "Of the many striking images of Palin – sportswoman, beauty queen, populist – in Alaska the most iconic is working mother, a perfectly coifed professional woman balancing public duties and child-rearing in a charismatic blur of multitasking."Skip to next paragraph
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Meanwhile, reports of Palin's hard-right credentials (anti-abortion, pro-gun, possibly pro-creationism, and pro-abstinence education) receded rapidly as did news, covered in a blur, that she had attended five colleges over six years before graduating.
The see-saw story of Sarah Palin should give the press pause. Feeding frenzies followed by fawning serve only to confuse. If the public is to make sound decisions, to sort what's real from what's manufactured, the media must do their job with greater consistency and greater care.
1. The media should redouble efforts to unearth facts and spend far less time on speculation and titillation. McCain, Palin, Obama, and Joe Biden all have records. It's the media's job to expose contradictions in them – and to keep doing so even when campaigns push back. It is not the media's job to speculate who will be leading next week or whether a candidate can parent and govern simultaneously.
2. The media need to reexamine the meaning of journalistic objectivity. It is not to give equal weight and space to each side of an issue. It is to report fully and fairly, to determine where the facts fall, and to write what's verifiably true – giving a say, but not equal space, to those who contest the facts without evidence.
Palin, for example, does not believe climate change has a human cause. The scientific consensus says otherwise. Should her views carry equal weight as the campaign grinds on? My journalism professors would have said "no."
3. The media should regularly explain what reporters do and why. In an era in which reporters are about as popular as $4-a-gallon gasoline, this is imperative. This spring I gave a workshop to some 50 university public information employees. I faced a long silence before anyone could tell me what the First Amendment protects.
Until the news media turn both tougher and fairer, provides contextual truth and not just balance, political operatives will hold the upper hand. And the public will move through election cycles like motorists peering into a thick fog.
"You may fool all the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can't fool all of the people all the time," Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said.
Only a vigilant media can keep Machiavellian calculations of contemporary campaigns from fooling enough people enough of the time to make such deceit the deciding factor in our elections.