NPR logo The Presidential Election: The Refs Blew It

The Presidential Election: The Refs Blew It

Let's start with a hypothetical. Suppose Arizona Sen. John McCain loses the election. Do you think Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin emerges from the campaign a net winner or a net loser in terms of her relative position inside the Republican Party and on the national political scene?

On the plus side you'd likely never heard of Sarah Palin and now you certainly have. In politics, that's like going from last place to first, from cellar to the World Series. Palin is the Tampa Bay Rays of Republican politics. On the campaign trail, she proved enormously popular. She made the accusation "palling around with terrorists" a national catchphrase.

The downside, the damage to Palin's reputation, becomes the long-term political question. Palin's interview with CBS anchor Katie Couric and Tina Fey's impersonations of Palin on Saturday Night Live cast the governor as out of her league. She attracted to her rallies the true believers of the GOP, and the combination of her fiery rhetoric and her audience's intense dislike of the senator from Illinois created moments of political anger and passion. Barack Obama's race suffused these moments with interpretive uncertainty. Was this acceptable conservative vs. liberal or unacceptable white vs. black? If both, then in what measure? Any reporters who believe they know the answer should be more wary of what they think they know.

If you watch Fox News talk-show host and commentator Bill O'Reilly (which I do every night), there is no question that Palin has been treated unfairly by the mainstream media. That point of view is passionately shared by the vast majority of conservative media and Republicans in general. In the long term, that will help Palin recover from her political wounds. But while partisans can dismiss the depiction of Palin as the product of liberal media bias, the abandonment of the Alaska governor by mainstream and credentialed conservative columnists and politicians cannot be explained away the same way. That is a comeback hurdle that will be harder for Palin to clear.

And what about the liberal media, anyway?

I spent my teenage years in Durham, N.C.; my father was a professor at Duke University. From the early '70s on, we had season tickets to Cameron Indoor Stadium, and I became an avid Duke basketball fan. There is no fan in all of sports more familiar with the accusation "your team won because the referees were in the tank" than Duke basketball fans. And at no time were these allegations louder than while Duke was winning five Atlantic Coast Conference titles in a row. Duke won because it was "8 on 5" (five Duke players plus the three refs against the five opposing players). If you ask fans of other ACC teams, there is no question but that this is true.

Well, was it true? Bias is in the eye of the beholder. The charge should never be dismissed outright, nor should it be taken unreservedly to heart. There is always the possibility that Duke was better.

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