The McCain campaign is attempting to do something unheard of in the modern political era. It is not just running against the mainstream media, it is running around it.
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin speaks at a rally at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, on Monday. (MANDEL NGAN / AFP/Getty Images)
This strategy is not so much expressed in McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt’s declaration last week that the New York Times is “150 percent in the tank” for Democratic Sen. Barack Obama or the media-bashing by several speakers at this month’s Republican National Convention. It’s more about the GOP’s continued sheltering of its vice presidential nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.She has yet to hold a major press conference 32 days after McCain announced her as his running mate – and that’s not changing anytime soon. McCain spokesman Michael Goldfarb said Palin will do at least one news conference before election day. That could mean that the person who could potentially lead the free world will have done one national press conference before being sworn into office.
The Democratic vice presidential nominee, Joe Biden, has given more than 89 national and local interviews over roughly the same period of time.
Other than TV interviews with CBS anchor Katie Couric, ABC anchor Charlie Gibson and conservative Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, Palin hasn’t engaged the press. The effort to shield her is so intense that when she met with foreign leaders in New York last week, the campaign initially would only allow photographers near her.
“I don’t think the campaign is doing her any favors by not letting her answer any questions,” said PBS political editor Judy Woodruff, who has covered politics for 30 years for CNN and PBS. “If she’s elected vice president of the United States and were she to succeed to the presidency, she needs that interchange with journalists. The American people have a right to know what does she know and how does she think.”
“The media needs to continue to say, every day, until she has a news conference, ‘When is she going to have a news conference? Why isn’t she having one?’ I just find it astounding,” Woodruff said. “I think the media has a responsibility to continue to point out that this is unlike any presidential or vice presidential candidate in memory. She has been more bottled up.”
When television news outlets threatened not to run any images of her meeting with Afghan president Hamid Karzai on Tuesday unless reporters were allowed in as well, the campaign allowed CNN – which was providing the pool report for the event – inside. Briefly. According to the network, “CNN’s producer and other photographers were allowed in the room for just 29 seconds.”
‘Free Sarah Palin’
Last week, The Chronicle began a “Free Sarah Palin” campaign on its Politics blog, documenting the continuing lack of access to the candidate. The effort was echoed by CNN host Campbell Brown, who called on “the McCain campaign to stop treating Sarah Palin like she is a delicate flower that will wilt at any moment.”
“This woman is from Alaska, for crying out loud. She is strong. She is tough. She is confident. And you claim she is ready to be one heartbeat away from the presidency. If that is the case, then end this chauvinistic treatment of her now. Allow her to show her stuff,” Brown said. “Free Sarah Palin.”
The real loser in this game of hide-the-candidate: voters. Palin was not well-known outside of conservative circles before the campaign chose her. Polls, including one taken by the Pew Research Center, taken over the past few days show that Palin’s approval rating has dropped since she was nominated.
“The lack of access is potentially damaging in the eyes of the voter, because they are trying to get to know the candidate,” said Paul Dimock, associate director of the nonpartisan Pew Research Center for People and the Press. Palin is especially vulnerable because voters know McCain, Obama and Biden better, he said.
“The McCain campaign has discovered it has a major problem,” said Carol Jenkins, president of the Women’s Media Center. “Increasingly, it has become clear that she doesn’t have a grasp of the issues. If I were John McCain, I’d be doing the same thing with her.”
But Jenkins said the campaign doesn’t have an incentive to give the media more Palin face time. “If there is anybody more despised than Congress, it’s the media.”
So what can the media do? Jenkins said they shouldn’t have given in to the campaign’s demands last week during Palin’s New York visit. “At some point, the media has to stop cooperating with the campaign.”
Friday, syndicated conservative columnist Kathleen Parker had seen enough of Palin – and called on her to withdraw.
“Palin’s recent interviews with Charles Gibson, Sean Hannity and now Katie Couric have all revealed an attractive, earnest, confident candidate. Who Is Clearly Out Of Her League,” Parker wrote at the National Review Online.
“Palin filibusters. She repeats words, filling space with deadwood. Cut the verbiage and there’s not much content there,” Parker wrote. “If BS were currency, Palin could bail out Wall Street herself.”
But other news executives say what the McCain campaign is doing is not that unusual.
“All politicians go through a stage where they want to minimize how much they are exposed to the media,” said Paul Friedman, vice president of news at CBS, the network that scored one of the three major Palin interviews. He shrugged at what could be learned in a news conference that couldn’t in a one-on-one interview. “I just don’t think it is that cosmic of an issue. We’ll see more of the candidates soon. Just wait for the debates.”
© 2008 The San Francisco Chronicle