These days, party nominating conventions are events for the media as much as for the delegates. The McCain campaign took its turn carefully crafting its image visually and rhetorically before a captive media crowd this week. Did the GOP accomplish what it set out to achieve in St. Paul?
Republicans in St. Paul found something they agree on this week. They denounced the media, a tactic that has guided them through many elections since the 1970s. Some of the strongest attacks came from vice presidential choice Sarah Palin. She claimed that her qualifications for high office were questioned solely because the media didn't know her.
Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska, Vice Presidential Candidate): Here's a little news flash for 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 great country.
(Soundbite of cheering)
INSKEEP: The attacks on the media came during a convention that was meticulously planned to use the media for all it was worth. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now.
David, good morning.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: And let's emphasize both parties work for the best coverage at the convention and everywhere else. But the question, I guess, is: did anything about this Republican effort go beyond the normal?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, don't think so much about the visuals. Think about this as more of a guerilla marketing campaign. You know, there was tactical planning throughout the convention by the Republicans. Even as it started, the pick of Governor Palin was meant to sort of cut off the momentum of Obama's speech. And then when you go back to Monday, there were worries about Hurricane Gustav reviving these images of the Bush administration kind of falling down on the job for Hurricane Katrina several years ago. They all but canceled the first night. So what that does is it keeps President Bush and Vice President Cheney away from the stage.
INSKEEP: Because they were supposed to be there Monday night, right.
FOLKENFLIK: Exactly. And then in the infelicitous phrase of a McCain campaign aide, Tucker Eskew, they then flushed the toilet, which was to say they got rid of all these little minor but embarrassing things about the Palin record - her husband's two-decades-old DUI, the pregnancy of her unwed teenage daughter, a number of other details; they just got it all out in the press, angrily, but they said let's take care of it here while the nation's looking at the hurricane.
INSKEEP: Were they basically taking advantage of the truism that the media can only pay attention to one story at a time? They were paying attention to Obama, we'll drop this Palin thing on them, they'll forget about Obama. And then you're saying they're paying attention to the hurricane, we'll drop all these other things that we don't want to get that much attention.
FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, I guess, you know, they can't chew gum and file by remote at the same time.
INSKEEP: That would be us, actually, being unable to chew gum.
FOLKENFLIK: They, being us (unintelligible)
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: What about after the storm went away? Did Bush and Cheney come back?
FOLKENFLIK: No. I mean, fascinating to see. You saw President Bush appearing only by a satellite hookup Tuesday evening. And doing so - wrapping up several minutes before primetime television began. So you know, he wasn't going to embarrass or taint the McCain notion. You know, Vice President Cheney apparently, you know, was mysteriously rendered away from the country. Never showed up at all. He goes to Georgia. He's never mentioned onstage. You know, when Senator McCain speaks on Thursday, Laura Bush was mentioned onstage quite reverentially, but President George W. Bush was not directly mentioned by name.
INSKEEP: One other thing, David Folkenflik, does it work when you're a politician and you denounce the media? I mean, after all, journalists normally have a popularity rating that - well, I guess we're a little better than Congress but not much.
FOLKENFLIK: You know, it's been a time-honored trope, you know, Spiro Agnew, President George H. W. Bush - annoy the media, reelect Bush was his cry in '92. Didn't happen for him in '92. But you know, it seems to have helped shape Governor Palin as something of a Joan of Arc. She's emerged from this onslaught, as described by the McCain people, in a way that makes her seem crisp and willing to take on a good fight.
INSKEEP: David, thanks very much.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
INSKEEP: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.
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In St. Paul, The Media Were Evil And Perspicacious
There are many important lessons to be drawn from the two big political conventions, sober ones about the future of our country, the state of modern politics, the divide separating many Americans, and the weighty obligation the media have to cover this Grand Guignol in all its multifaceted splendor.
My fellow Americans, this column will draw none of those lessons.
Instead, I'm like the guy at the end of Memento, confused and blinking, trying to figure out what just happened in my life over the past two weeks. Do you have any idea how exhausting it was? Or at least how exhausting it would have been, had I actually taken the time to watch all the TV news shows and read all the coverage I told my bosses I'm following?
So let's start in the middle of the scrum of delegates (metaphorically, of course — I'm writing from Metropolis rather than Minneapolis) and barrel our way to the exits:
Lesson No. 1: The ratings prove that cable is king. During the Republican convention, the place to watch was clearly Fox News. Wednesday night, for example, saw the national debut of Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate. More than 37 million Americans tuned in to watch Palin speak — and no one had a bigger audience than Fox News. The numbers get interesting beginning at 10 p.m. Eastern, because that's when the big broadcast networks show up. Fox News had more than 9 million viewers then — far more than any other station, and the highest-rated convention in cable news history.
Last week, in Denver, Barack Obama drew 40 million viewers. And that time, it was CNN's turn to shine — though not as brightly in the ratings as Fox News did this week. The key thing to remember: Cable news is desperately scrambling to keep your attention, too, and it's not clear it will after Election Day. But the cable folks sure are posting gaudy numbers in the meantime.
Lesson No. 2: The media shouldn't expect any love during election season, whatever the ratings. And the pithiest line slamming the media came from the same person who got all those ratings and rapturous reviews Wednesday night. Palin, obviously a bit tender that the media gave her a more thorough going-over than the McCain campaign had, offered these thoughts:
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.
She's got to work on that to fit it onto a bumper sticker. But it's a start. We here at Media Circus thought we'd perform a public service by reviving some past slogans on the topic.
Nattering Nabobs of Negativism (Spiro Agnew) Annoy the Media! Re-Elect Bush (George H.W. Bush) Wait, You're Not From MSNBC, Are You? (Hillary Clinton) Hello? Is This Mike On? (Peggy Noonan)
The only three letters chanted at the Republican convention other than USA, when delegates were drowning out anti-war protesters? N-B-C.
But to be clear, the delegates seemed to say it more in anger than in sorrow.
And, by the way, don't sell short the ability of the press to join the criticism. After charges of sexism were lodged against the press in its treatment of Palin, I saw CNN's Campbell Brown, Anderson Cooper and John King all explain ways in which the media — meaning their own channel — had treated the governor differently from Joe Biden and Barack Obama the week before.
People, people! The politicians say you're biased. The public apparently does, too. But do you really have to do your job evaluations on the air?
Lesson No. 3: Bill O'Reilly likes the word "perspicacious." It just slipped out on the O'Reilly Factor, naturally.
He was interviewing Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama about Iraq on Thursday night on the Factor — an interview request Obama agreed to after holding out for several months. O'Reilly asked him about Iran and then turned to the decision to invade Iraq.
O'Reilly: I think history will show it's the wrong battlefield. OK? And I think that you were perspicacious in your original assessment of the battlefield.
Obama (clearly misreading what was about to happen): I appreciate it.
I do that all the time. Like, when I say to the guy at the DMV, "I think that you were perspicacious in your original assessment of my car's inadequate taillights. OK?"
Or when I ask my girlfriend, "Hey, if we're going to grill that tuna steak, do we have any perspicacity to sprinkle on it first?"
O'Reilly was sitting right there, Fox News' Everyman, taking on the previously but no longer haughty Democratic presidential nominee, mano a mano. Just one working-class stiff with an advanced degree from Harvard in the No Spin Zone grilling another (Bill O, JFK School, Class of '96; Obama, Harvard Law '91).
But The Factor held his own against a man he described as no lightweight:
"He's a tough guy, Obama," O'Reilly said in the post-game analysis of his own performance — at least in the first portion, aired Thursday. "I looked at him eye to eye — he's not a wimp. He's not a wimpy guy."
O'Reilly got Obama to acknowledge that the elevation of U.S. troop levels in Iraq, commonly called the surge, had "succeeded beyond our wildest dreams." (More on that in a bit.)
O'Reilly has promised three (!) other segments with Obama over the next week. The interview was brokered by none other than News Corp. mogul Rupert Murdoch, during a meeting at which he brought Obama and Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes together. According to Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff, Obama complained about what he felt was unfair treatment from Fox. Ailes reportedly replied that Fox would treat him fairly but wouldn't be in the tank for him, as, Ailes contended, the other television networks were.
Fox News: Perspicacious and balanced.
Lesson No. 4. Pundits will say an-ee-thing on live television just to be on live television. Sometimes they would be embarrassed about it — were they not darting to the next consulting job (for the political types) or book party (journalist types). And the anything can be inane. But it can also involve Mobius strip contortions to help a favored party or candidate. Take, oh, I don't know, former former Bush White House Svengali Karl Rove, now an independent observer for Fox News Channel.
Jon Stewart certainly does. He finds Rove and a bunch of other pundits reversing course when convenient. As, for example, when Rove praised Palin's experience but earlier had said that the pick of Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, as a running mate would show Obama was "really not concerned with picking someone capable of being president of the United States."
Oh, Stewart has other examples, too. This isn't a lesson, per se, because it's so mortifying for professional media critics. Take Stewart at his own word: He's not in the news business. But apparently it takes a satirist (and his crack team of capuchin monkey researchers) to wade through actual, not-made-up-clips to show how the echo chamber actually works.
Lesson No. 5: Never count out Bob Woodward. He's like the guy in The Fugitive — relentlessly working to crack the case. This time, it's Book 4 on Bush, in which he reveals — wait for it — the surge in Iraq didn't have all that much to do with the sharp drop of violence there. That's more books than the investigative dynamo wrote on President Nixon, and he more or less brought Nixon down.
According to a synopsis running in Friday's editions of The Washington Post, and prompted by the fact that Fox News got an early copy of his book, Woodward reports that "'groundbreaking' new covert techniques, beginning in 2007, enabled U.S. military and intelligence officials to locate, target and kill insurgent leaders and key individuals in extremist groups such as al-Qaeda in Iraq."
And he reported four reasons for the reduction of violence: "[new kinds of] covert operations; the influx of troops; the decision by militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to rein in his powerful Mahdi Army; and the so-called Anbar Awakening, in which tens of thousands of Sunnis turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq and allied with U.S. forces."
Oh, also, the U.S. has been spying on the prime minister of Iraq during his every waking moment, and President Bush, in Woodward's judgment, "too often failed to lead."
So, while all those 15,000 credentialed journalists in St. Paul were gaping at the projection of the largest American flag ever on that big green pool tarp on the stage, Woodward was busy undermining just about every assertion in all interviews done on foreign policy at the conventions over the past two weeks.