Sarah Palin and the War on the Media

Since her selection as John McCain’s running-mate was announced last Friday, the media has been “on a mission to destroy” Sarah Palin. That’s the charge from McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt, at least, and it’s just one of countless over-the-top characterizations from the McCain campaign and its surrogates of the scrutiny Palin has encountered.

On one level, this is standard fare for a Republican nominee. Ever since Richard Nixon framed his candidacy and his presidency as havens for a “silent majority” of Americans who felt condescended to by media elites, press-bashing has been a staple of the G.O.P. playbook, a way to rally the party base against a common enemy and to convince G.O.P.-leaning swing voters to dismiss critical media coverage of Republicans.

Sometimes it works brilliantly, as with George W. Bush, who reveled in the press’ derision of his intellect and reading habits (it was often noted that Bush didn’t read newspapers), using it to tell conservatives that the media was really mocking them and their values. But it doesn’t always work, as George H.W. Bush learned in the closing weeks of his doomed 1992 re-election campaign, when he adopted a new slogan: Annoy the media – re-elect Bush.

In a way, the McCain campaign’s current assault on the media is simply an extension of a strategy that adopted earlier this summer, when they began openly ridiculing the press for its supposed fixation on Barack Obama and the gaping disparities between the coverage of the two candidates. It proved a successful tactic, refocusing the G.O.P. base on its old enemy, the media, and helping McCain (despite his past differences with the right) attain a high level of support among Republican voters.

In the case of Palin, the blame-the-media strategy has, once again, fired up the base – or at least those conservatives who have made their way to St. Paul, who offer effusive and unqualified praise for Palin (and scorn for the media) whenever they are asked. Their outrage has been stoked by the McCain campaign, which has dispatched an army of surrogates to press the same basic talking points, which portray Palin as a ripe target for the media because she embodies a conservative values set that is antithetical to members of the press. When Palin takes the stage tonight, she will probably be greeted more enthusiastically than McCain will be tomorrow night.

But the attacks on the media aren’t just about the party base. Framing Palin as the victim of an unprecedented and relentless character assault also helps to shield her from the many relevant and non-personal questions that she has yet to answer. Since her selection last Friday, Palin has yet to respond to questions about her removal of Alaska’s state police commissioner – retribution, it has been alleged, for his unwillingness to fire her ex-brother-in-law as a state trooper. Nor has she discussed her decision to seek federal earmarks when she was the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, or her role as a director of a 527 committee controlled by Ted Stevens, the indicted senator whose support helped Palin win the governorship in 2006. The earmark and 527 issues raise clear and direct questions about the reform and good government credentials that, in McCain’s and Palin’s telling, define her political career.

But the McCain campaign’s aggressive attacks on the press and its motives may be muddying the waters. All day, McCain surrogates have been appearing on cable talk shows, proclaiming what a manifestly unfair shake Palin has received – and often drawing specific attention to the unfounded suggestion by a Daily Kos blogger last weekend that Palin had pretended to give birth last March to cover-up for her 17-year-old daughter. By relentlessly harping on the crudeness (and utter inaccuracy) of these charges, the surrogates are trying to make all questions about Palin seem like variations of the same type of gutter politics.

The risk for the McCain campaign, supposedly, is that an all-out war with the press over the last two months of this campaign will make victory impossible. A sign of how serious the campaign is about pursuing this posture came last night, when McCain abruptly pulled out of a scheduled appearance on CNN’s Larry King Live, one night after the network’s Campbell Brown aggressively questioned McCain’s spokesman about Palin’s qualifications for national office.

But already, some of the benefits of crusading against the media have become clear. Palin has been portrayed as a besieged figure these past few days and has practically disappeared from sight. The anticipation for her speech is high – but expectations, suddenly, are low. That’s the perfect set-up for a blockbuster speech – especially when you throw in the raucous hero’s welcome the adoring delegates figure to give her, and her strong communication skills. Her speech is now a major event – even bigger than it otherwise would have been – and she clearly has the raw ingredients to rise to the occasion. And if she does that, then millions of Americans will probably be that much more receptive to the McCain campaign’s gripes. What an impressive woman, they’ll reason – why was the media giving her such a hard time?

Sarah Palin and the War on the Media