St. Paul — Oscar Wilde famously quipped that the problem with a socialism was all the meetings; similarly, it’s hard not to wonder if the problem with journalism is all the panel discussions. The only thing worse than media bias is sitting around listening to a bunch of journalists flapping their gums in a vain attempt to justify it.
Since Republicans have for years complained (rightly) about this media bias, it only makes sense that the thousands of journalists descending on the G.O.P. convention would find at least one occasion to dissemble and unconvincingly pretend to be the praetorian guard of the public interest.
And so the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and The Politico sponsored a panel — “Politics and the Media: Bridging the Divide in the 2008 Election.” As for the name of the event, well it was half-right. Listening to the assembled media panelists — which included Fortune’s Nina Easton, Catalina Camia of USA Today, Bush and McCain media advisor Mark McKinnon, and Roger Simon and Jim VandeHei of The Politico – the divide between the media and political reality was never so evident, but there was nary a bridge in sight.
Naturally, the discussion turned to the Bristol Palin kerfuffle and the media’s collective decision to pursue it with prurient zeal, to the exclusion of all else. Somewhat surprisingly, they admitted that they were sent crusading by the paranoid fantasies of an anonymous left-wing ideologue.
Over the weekend, a pseudonymous blogger posted a lengthy diary on Daily Kos speculating that Gov. Palin’s infant son Trig was not hers — that, in a preposterously elaborate cover-up, she was claiming a child born to her teenage daughter, Bristol.
“I don’t know a reporter who off-the-record wouldn’t say there’s some compelling stuff in here if you look at the photos,” Politico founder Jim VandeHei said of the post, which purported to show photos of Sarah Palin not looking very pregnant seven months along.
Another panelist upheld this as a fine example of citizen journalism. There was only one small hitch, as Politico columnist Roger Simon thankfully pointed out: “It shouldn’t be overlooked that the original story was inaccurate.” And wildly inaccurate at that.
But it was enough to let slip the dogs of journalism on Sarah Palin and her family. That a vice-presidential candidate would be forced to endure harsh media scrutiny would be something of a defense, if there were not such a blatant double standard at work. An audience member asked about, and the distinguished panelists struggled to explain, the media’s collective decision to ignore the allegations of John Edwards’ affair and lovechild — while entertaining no such reservations about the Bristol Palin story. In just a few days, they’d flooded the zone with reports about Palin’s family — whether she’s breastfeeding, untrue rumors about her supporting Pat Buchanan’s presidency, etc. But on Edwards, nothing — for weeks.
“Why not just put [the Edwards accusations] out there?,” Simon asked rhetorically. “There are human beings involved in this, the story turned out to be true so you could say, ‘Well, the mainstream media should have reported it long ago.’ But there are scores of rumors out there, scores of stories that turn out not to be true — should the mainstream report every rumor that someone has raised?”
The answer to Simon’s conundrum is painfully obvious. The media should never report “rumors.” The media’s job is to investigate rumors and report the truth. Mainstream media outlets never even seriously investigated the basis of the Enquirer’s legitimate story — despite the tabloid’s record for breaking major stories, as it did with regularity during the O.J. trial.
The other justifications for the media’s falling down on the job with regard to the Edwards story could scarcely be believed. As VandeHei put it, “I remember the sort of collective response was, ‘Ah, he [Edwards] can’t be that dumb.’” But as dumb as it was for Edwards to have the affair, it might well have been even dumber for the media to treat Edwards’ denials of the affair as credible. Strictly as an issue of character, Edwards should have been treated with a heaping dollop of media suspicion. Prior to the accusations of the affair surfacing last year, Bob Shrum — famed Democratic electoral strategist and one of the architects of the Kerry-Edwards campaign in 2004 — wrote an article in Time magazine accusing Edwards of lying to John Kerry and exploiting the death of his teenage son in an attempt to further his political career.
So then, as the media continues to dig into Sarah Palin’s personal life, the question remains: Are the media biased, or are they simply daft? To paraphrase Fox news, the mainstream media will continue to report — and you can decide.
– Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.