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Reporters Behaving Badly

A look back at the most cringe-worthy media moments of the 2008 campaign.

| Thu Feb. 5, 2009 4:46 PM PST | Scheduled to publish Thu Feb. 5, 2009 4:46 PM PST

At the end of May, appearing on Fox News on Sunday, Liz Trotta, a former editor with the Washington Times and broadcast TV journalist, was asked by the host, Eric Shawn, about the latest Clinton controversy—Hillary's remark that people demanding she leave the race ought to remember that Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in June of 1968—that is, late in the campaign. Trotta replied, "And now we have what some are reading as a suggestion that somebody knock off Osama, uh Obama. Well, both, if we could." She laughed. The host, Shawn, commented: "Talk about how you really feel!" Trotta offered a weak apology the next day. All was forgiven.

Perhaps the media did, as some have charged, unintentionally help elect Obama—indirectly. At the Democratic convention in Denver, many reporters provided overblown coverage of the supposed threat of female Hillary delegates and supporters to bolt the Democratic Party and back McCain. The leaders of this effort received much face time on TV, and political reporters and pundits claimed that this group was merely the tip of the iceberg and that many women, particularly older ones and suburban/blue-collar types who had voted for Hillary in the primaries could abandon the Democrats in November.

There was no firm evidence for this, and few commentators on TV and in print seemed to notice that the same few disgruntled Hillary delegates appeared on all of the shows. Still, Obama's possible defeat because of the possible defections was widely predicted.

John McCain and his people, though, bought this analysis. And Sarah Palin rose to the top of their VP list. They saw an opening—which really wasn't there—and went completely overboard. Not only did a woman VP suddenly look like a great idea, but a folksy one would have extra appeal to the Hillary primary voters so hyped by the media. Writing in the New York Times, Kate Zernike noted that Democratic women could well flock toward Palin: "Palin's selection unleashes gender as a live issue again, just when Democrats thought they had it under control."

But this mass defection would never happen. Instead, preposterous media coverage of the unhappy Hillaryites apparently had caused McCain to select as his running mate someone who would eventually lessen his chances of victory.

Nothing was more embarrassing for the TV and cable pundits during the fall campaign than the fact that their scoring of the three presidential debates and the single VP debate were regularly undermined by the verdicts of focus groups and instant (scientific) polls. Time and again, most pundits scored a debate even or nearly so, only to discover that in each case the Democrat was overwhelmingly pronounced the victor by voters who watched.

Following the conclusion of each of the four debates, the McCain-Palin "bounce" would last barely 30 minutes—until the focus group/poll results came in. Give the major media outfits credit for this corrective innovation. Without such polls and focus groups, McCain would have been awarded the "Big Mo" or at least the "Slow Mo" by out-of-touch pundits.

During the debate between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, many commentators lowered the bar for the Alaska governor. David Brooks blurted out at a panel discussion in New York City that Palin was unqualified for her post. He would not say so, though, in his column. Rich Lowry of The National Review admitted on the magazine's website that he "sat up a little straighter" on his sofa, aroused by Palin's smile and wink—and claimed that he saw "starbursts." Other pundits jumped on Joe Biden for referring to people in Bosnia as "Bosniaks." Turned out he was correct. And at the first Obama/McCain debate, Tom Brokaw noted that he had received tens of thousands of questions donated by voters—and then he asked the candidates some of the most obvious ones of the entire campaign.

In the final days of the campaign, there were too many media infractions to count or cover: from the sensational coverage of the young woman who supported McCain who was supposedly mugged and "branded" by an Obama backer (a hoax) to the revival of the William Ayers issue. But one moment was memorable.

William Kristol appeared once again on The Daily Show, where host Jon Stewart periodically would ask (rhetorically), "Oh, Bill Kristol, aren't you ever right?" This night, Kristol, in character, predicted a McCain win. When Stewart acted doubtful, Kristol dismissed Stewart for depending on conventional media sources: "You're reading the New York Times too much." Stewart replied, "Bill, you work for the New York Times!" Later, Stewart got Kristol to say that Obama was not a radical and would probably be a "conventional president" likely to disappoint the left. Stewart then asked, why are you and McCain calling him a dangerous radical if you don't mean it?

It was a question that could have been asked of many others in the media.

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