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Cannon Confesses to Sarah Palin for All of Us

mediaite_thumbMy former editor and current White House colleague, Carl Cannon, is creating quite a stir with a piece he published last week about the 2008 election. Here’s the thrust of Cannon’s nostra culpa:

In the 2008 election, we took sides, straight and simple, particularly with regard to the vice presidential race. I don’t know that we played a decisive role in that campaign, and I’m not saying the better side lost. What I am saying is that we simply didn’t hold Joe Biden to the same standard as Sarah Palin, and for me, the real loser in this sordid tale is my chosen profession.

Whew! That’s certainly a load off all of our minds. I feel a spring in our step already.

Carl’s piece is now a cause celebre for consevative sites like Newsbusters, who view it as their smoking gun, and was even cited by John McCain on yesterday’s Meet the Press. Somewhere, John Ziegler is moonwalking.

TPM’s Josh Marshall did a short and sweet pushback, listing his 3 reasons for Palin’s bad press:

1) her rapidly demonstrated lack of grounding or familiarity with almost every major policy question facing the country, 2) the fact — which took reporters a bit longer to get a handle on — that her governance of Alaska had amounted almost to one long string of ethics violations and possibly illegal behavior. Time and again she showed a signal inability to grasp that executive power was not to be used to pursue personal vendettas or enrichment. And then 3), growing from the recognition of items #1 and #2, that Palin was simply a liar, even judged against the frightfully generous standard customarily applied to the truth-telling abilities of elected officials.

Unfortunately, Marshall spends the balance of his piece focusing, not on the substance of Carl’s argument, but rather on trying to lump him in with “other conservative talking heads,” an insulting assertion to a journalist of Cannon’s caliber.

I asked Carl what he thought of Marshall’s rebuttal, and here’s some of what he said: (via email)

My piece is not an ode to Sarah Palin. It’s a criticism of my own profession regarding our coverage of the woman. Obviously, Governor Palin’s qualifications were thin by historic standards. So were Barack Obama’s and, really, George W. Bush’s the first time he ran. But that’s hardly the only factor that determines how a candidate will perform on the stump, let alone as president or vice president, which Senator Biden proved in 2008, and numerous presidents have proved in office. Joe Biden had a superb resume; that hardly inoculated him from saying several fanciful and inaccurate things while campaigning. What I did in my piece was lament the long slide traditional journalism into a kind of free-wheeling saloon where journalists feel as free to vent their feelings and opinions — and yes, partisan leanings. The main evidence I cite for this view (and I did this rather painstakingly) was the media’s double-standard with regard Palin and Biden relative intellects and base of knowledge, particularly about foreign policy.

While Carl might want to confine the discussion to the vice-presidential race, when you say “we took sides, straight and simple,” you’re opening up a much wider door. Still, it’s a good place to start.

A quick review of Carl’s blog dispenses with the notion that “we” did anything. The entire text of what Carl says “we” missed comes from a blog entry that he wrote just after the debate. Carl didn’t miss any of it. Setting that aside, Carl’s argument suffers from the assertion that the debate wasn’t fact-checked, and the assumption that it hurt Palin.

In fact, immediately following the debate, most pundits scored it close on the substance, and even Palin’s critics conceded that she had far exceeded expectations (post-debate polling showed much the same thing). The debate was a win for Palin, despite the fact that moderator Gwen Ifill, perhaps softened by right-wing attacks on her for writing a book with the word “Obama” in the title, allowed Palin to openly refuse to abide by the debate’s rules. While Biden reliably churned out errors (that were pointed out), Palin often just refused to answer (even after the McCain campaign negotiated an easier format for Palin).

What did hurt Palin with many Americans, erect couch-sitter Rich Lowry notwithstanding, were Palin’s ham-fisted, folksy manipulations (includin’ the winkin’) and tone-deaf faux populism. On the merits, the press gave Palin a lot of slack. Outside the media bubble, Palin got on America’s nerves.

In making his larger point, Carl ranges far afield, building key parts of his case around the actions of people like Bill Maher and a Daily Kos diarist. This is a bit like building an indictment of the medical profession around those ExtEnze commercials.

The biggest flaw in Carl’s argument, though, is in choosing to compare Palin with Biden. In terms of the media’s reaction, Barack Obama is a much better match. Both were young, game-changing newcomers, while McCain and Biden match up as known quantities, each given varying degrees of benefit of the doubt.

Did the media cover Obama and Palin the same way? Well, there was certainly the same level of heat. The press picked up and amplified every attack on Barack Obama, as they did with Palin. Many of them came straight from Palin, and were vetted spottily by the press. A huge, blistering deal was made out of issues like Reverend Wright and Bill Ayers, over a much longer duration. Most of them didn’t stick, which could be seen as a measure of their merit.

It is undeniably true that Sarah Palin got a lot of negative coverage, and that some mistakes were made (mainly at the fringes). That’s not because “we” took sides. Reality took sides, straight and simple.

This post has been edited slightly since it was first published.

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