One of the souvenirs we kept from the 1992 U.S. Presidential election campaign is a bright red baseball hat with the inscription: “Annoy the Media: Re-Elect Bush.”
It was handed out to the pro-Republican audience at a rally in the state of Wisconsin for then President George H.W. Bush (who lost out in his re-election bid to Bill Clinton). The reporters traveling with Mr. Bush were amused and scrambled to get hats themselves. But the underlying theme --- media bashing --- captivated the audience then and it is what has captured our attention now.
During the just-concluded Republican National Convention, top party figures repeatedly attacked news organizations – mainly over their reports on the surprise selection of little known Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be the Vice Presidential running mate to Republican Presidential contender John McCain. Much of the reporting focused on her family, including the revelation that her unmarried 17-year-old daughter was pregnant.
Governor Palin herself joined the fray in a wildly-applauded convention address:
“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.”
Attacking the media is an old sport in U.S. politics.
Before Palin and before George H.W. Bush, there was the case of Spiro Agnew, who was Vice President under Richard Nixon. He became famous for his attacks on the Nixon administration’s political opponents and critics, including news organizations, using such descriptions as “nattering nabobs of negativism”, “pusillanimous pussyfooters” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.” Before him, in 1964, former President Dwight Eisenhower denounced “sensation-seeking columnists and commentators.”
Back to Governor Palin. Howard Kurtz, media critic of the Washington Post, says she was, in his opinion, “mauled, minimized and manhandled by an openly skeptical media establishment.”
But then Kurtz says, the McCain team responded by declaring war on the press. He says: “Press-bashing plays well among Republicans.” He says it has also stirred sympathy among the broader public.
Indeed, a survey by Rasmussen Reports last week found over half of American voters (51%) thought reporters were trying to hurt Sarah Palin with their news coverage, and 24% said those stories made them more likely to vote for Republican presidential candidate McCain in November.
Will that apparent sympathy approval last until the November election? It is too soon to say. But the opinion polls released after the Republican convention show the Republican team of McCain and Palin have gained ground on their Democratic rivals, Senator Barack Obama and Senator Joe Biden.
As for the impact on the media? Well, one might ask whether some news outfits are trying to make up for any perceived anti-Palin bias by now showing toughness against her opponents. And by doing so, one might ask if they have fallen victim to a carefully orchestrated put-the-media-on-the-defense campaign?
Consider the “lipstick-on-a-pig” incident. We won’t go into the sordid details but recommend you read VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone’s story and the item “Notes From The Pig Sty In which we all get dirty” by Megan Garber on the web site of the Columbia Journalism Review.
We’ll note only one reference came up on VOANews.com when we searched for stories with the keyword “lipstick.” (And that is fine by us.) But CJR reports its count on U.S. cable news TV networks broke down this way: CNN 28, MSNBC 35 and Fox News 48. And that was just within the first 12 hours after Obama’s comment.