11.11.08

Dear Journalists: Stop Screwing Up

The press should have reported every time Palin refused to meet with members of the media.

The press should have reported every time Sarah Palin refused to meet with credentialed members of the media.

This past week the press fell all over itself "reporting" on Sarah Palin's latest bout with ignorance. The front page of every newspaper and the first segment of every network newscast told the story of how John McCain's staffers had let it be known that their vice presidential nominee was so blithely ignorant of foreign affairs that she was unaware that Africa was a continent and not a country, and that she was unable to name the three countries in the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Whether the accusations are true or just the sniping of losers (or both), the prominence with which the press reported them was remarkable. Remarkable because more than anything else the reports revealed how miserably the press, and in particular the broadcast news divisions, performed their most basic duty during the campaign—to serve as the people's proxy during the fall campaign.

The American electorate was fed a daily dose of images and words that were 99 percent what the McCain-Palin wanted, rather than the information Americans needed to make a fully informed decision on election day.

From the moment Senator John McCain named Governor Palin as his running mate, the television press was content with capturing video and pictures during their limited photo opportunities and recording Gov. Palin's stump speeches, instead of demanding real access to the candidate. As a result, instead of real reporting the American electorate was fed a daily dose of images and words that were 99 percent what the McCain-Palin wanted to deliver into American households, rather than the information Americans needed to make a fully informed decision on election day.

Does it have to be this way? The network news divisions would have you believe that to be the case. But it's not. In fact, if they were truly motivated to be more than just megaphones for the campaigns, I've got a spectacularly simple remedy for them:

The television press should simply refuse to broadcast the words of candidates who do not grant them legitimate access.

Every day that Gov. Palin refused to meet with credentialed members of the national press corp for a legitimate question and answer session, the nightly newscasts should have reported that fact. Brian Williams, Charlie Gibson, Katie Couric and Wolf Blitzer should have said, "On yet another day that Sarah Palin was not available to speak to members of the national press corp, Gov. Palin delivered a speech in X-town at a rally in front of Y-number of supporters"—and the only images of the candidate broadcast should have been a wide-shot of their campaign event. That's it. No "Joe the Plumber" sound-bites. No rallying cries. And no attacks on the other side that couldn't be questioned directly by the press to Gov. Palin. And no air time for their correspondents "covering" the campaign.

Had they followed this simple prescription, the campaign would have had no choice but to make Gov. Palin available. (And their own correspondents would have been far more aggressive in their own reporting.)

No doubt the campaign would have first sent out its spokespeople to go on television to complain about the coverage, but that only would have put the spotlight right where it should have been: on the Governor's reluctance to face the nation. Inevitably the resulting controversy would have made the press "part of the story"—something news executives always say that they want to avoid (except when it will get them ratings)—but the fact is that the press was a major part of the story of the McCain-Palin campaign.

And during those Q&A sessions, one of the first questions the press should have asked should have been: "Do you think that candidates and office holders have an obligation to make themselves available to the press on a regular basis, and will you pledge to do so, if elected?

Had the press followed this prescription, today we would have a better sense of whether or not Governor Palin actually knows if Africa is a continent or a country, or what countries make up NAFTA, or whether she believes that the Kenyan preacher at her local Pentecostal church in Wasilla actually has the power of God to defeat witch-doctors and help elect governors, or whether Gov. Palin believes that anyone who is not a member of her religion is doomed to damnation.

The only reason we don't know those answers, is because the press never bothered to ask her.

Douglas Warshaw is Co-Founder of 23-7 Media and Motionbox.com, and author of TheWarshawCurve.com.