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September 15, 2008

A Media Vetting

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Sally Quinn, a noted national political journalist, finally said aloud what many have long known about professional political journalists.


Ms. Quinn, in a nationally televised interview, expressed the idea that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. John McCain's choice for running mate, was not qualified to be on the national stage. Ms. Quinn was pressed on her comment, and – in a moment of stunning clarity – issued the following observation. "Governor Palin needs to expose herself to professional political journalists. She needs to be fully vetted by the news media and asked tough questions before the American people will accept her as being qualified to be vice president."


The last person in the world who would guide my opinion on the qualification of a national political figure would be a representative of the national news media. There can be no doubt that we need to see our national leaders or aspirants face difficult, probing questions from journalists. But we'd prefer, for the sake of our own determination, that the journalists be free from bias and preference.


Too many times we've seen evidence, albeit subtle, of journalists interjecting their own political beliefs into a news story. Accepting that a commentator or pundit is expected to do this, there's nothing untoward about a Sean Hannity (FOX News), Joe Scarborough (MSNBC), or Anderson Cooper (CNN) slipping in their own personal views. It actually does make for a fuller view of a candidate.


When that happens with a reporter, though, it's a very different story.


That's probably the major difference between my view of the media's role and Ms. Quinn's perspective. While she sees the media as responsible for fully vetting a candidate and assuring their readiness to serve, a more appropriate role is to simply ask the questions we'd all like to see asked, without any value judgment or assessment by a journalist.


Cases in point: It's the media's job to ask about a candidate's public service background, not to judge that a one-term small state governor lacks experience. It's the media's job to ask if a candidate's world view is informed by their faith, but not to pass value judgment on the tenets of that faith.


Even the great and respected NBC brand has suffered from this phenomenon. Under their cable news banner, MSNBC employed Capitol Hill veteran and newsman Chris Matthews and EPSN and cable news host Keith Olbermann to co-host their convention coverage.


Having watched their coverage of the Democratic Party fete in Denver, I was anticipating an effusive love-fest in St. Paul. The fawning and longing in Mr. Olbermann's voice for the speech given by Sen. Barack Obama at Mile High Stadium suggested some taboo relationship in the making!


It simply wasn't to be. The Matthews/Olbermann MSNBC team was on the attack at the GOP convention from the get-go, with John McCain identified as an angry 72 year-old intent on starting conflicts all over the globe. The choice of Governor Palin first stunned the pair, but quickly deteriorated into a partisan-sounding attack on her rural values and lack of an Ivy League education and well-stamped passport.


In Keith Olbermann's view, a person isn't even remotely qualified to be vice president without a vast résumé of dealing with international relations, or at least attending Harvard and learning about it (as in the case of Senator Obama).


Mr. Olbermann, when not ranting about good Democrats and bad Republicans, spends his time as a sports journalist with ESPN. He never played professional sports of any kind, not even lawn darts or jump rope. Using his qualification metrics, how is he able to legitimately report on basketball, baseball, and football?


Mr. Matthews did allow as to how the Palin choice was a brilliant strategic move by the McCain team, but only because the great unwashed redneck horde could find in her a rallying cry and reason to be.


Their tag team approach to vilifying the senator from Arizona and his Alaskan governor partner landed them in hot water. Internet rumors abound of the outrage of former NBC anchor and elder news statesman Tom Brokaw raging off-air about the overly partisan commentary.


Whether that actually happened or not, NBC News leadership was quick to announce a change in their coverage of the election in November. Messrs. Olbermann and Matthews will not anchor the cable network coverage but will provide more appropriate punditry.


The next few months will be more enjoyable and informative if the reporters concentrate on gathering facts, asking tough questions, and focusing on the candidate's position on issues. Leave the vetting and determination of candidate’s qualification in the hands of those who have the ultimate responsibility to exercise their right to vote.


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