Stenography 101: How the Press Let Palin And Cheney Rig the System

Eric Boehlert

by Eric Boehlert

Not content with its lapdog coverage of President Bush over the past decade, the Beltway press has adopted a new, super-soft way to deal with Bush’s former vice president, Dick Cheney, as well as GOP media star Sarah Palin. Journalists have set aside what had been decades’ worth of guidelines and embraced special new rules for how Cheney and Palin get treated.

In a word, it’s stenography.

That’s how too many scribes have covered Cheney and Palin in recent months, allowing them to dispense tightly controlled pieces of information, which journalists then trumpet as breaking news. And yes, the trend is unprecedented in modern day American politics.

It’s actually a two-fer. First, it’s unprecedented because the Beltway press has never showered attention on political losers, such as Cheney and Palin. Meaning, the press has never cared what a former VP had to say about current events right after leaving the White House (think: Dan Quayle), or what a failed VP candidate had to say just months after losing in a landslide (think: Geraldine Ferraro). Traditionally, pundits and reporters disdain political losers (think: Mike Dukakis). But for Cheney and Palin, the rules have been generously reworked.

The second oddity is that journalists now allow Cheney and Palin to completely dictate the media ground rules and afford them the chance to have one-way relationships with the press. Palin, for instance, perhaps still bruising from her woeful 2008 media performances, still hasn’t allowed herself to be interviewed by a single independent political journalist since she launched her book in November. Instead, she mostly communicates with the mainstream media via Facebook. And now that she’s signed on to join the Fox News staff, the chances of Palin ever speaking with the serious press seem to be less than zero. That lack of openness stacks the deck and leads to dreadful bouts of stenography; of literally recording what controversial Republicans say, and nothing more.

Of course, the Cheney brand of stenography has been trademarked by the news crew at Politico, and recently reached its unfortunate, albeit predictable, crescendo when the outlet simply reprinted Cheney’s latest Obama-hating "statement" (read: press release) in the wake of the failed terrorist attack aboard the Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit on Christmas Day. What happened was that following the botched attack, either Cheney reached out and provided Politico with an exclusive statement, or Politico contacted Cheney asking for one. (It’s not clear who contacted whom. And yes, journalistically, it matters.)

Then Politico, rather than incorporating some of Cheney’s comments in an actual news article about the political ramifications of the attempted terror strike, and rather than contacting Cheney for an actual interview where reporters could flesh out his comments with follow-up questions, simply reproduced Cheney’s wildly inaccurate, and inflammatory, Obama’s-making-us-less-safe "statement," in full. All 660 words of it.

The stenography became so unseemly that MSNBC’s Chris Matthews even called Politico out:

To make matters worse, when asked to defend Politico’s Cheney-friendly stenography, editor John Harris mounted a completely illogical defense and refused to address the rather obvious complaints about the news outlet’s outlandish practice of simply acting as a loving, unwavering conduit for Cheney. "Trying to get newsworthy people to say interesting things is part of what we do," was how, in the wake of the Cheney kerfuffle, Harris explained Politico to blogger Greg Sargent. Well, of course. Nobody objects to the pursuit of interesting quotes. That’s what good journalists do. But they don’t turn around and simply print the quotes as gospel, devoid of any context. Especially when the "interesting things" that "newsworthy people" actually consist of an avalanche of partisan lies.

The truth is, Politico used to at least send reporters over to Cheney’s Virginia office in order to perform their stenography in person. Following a sit-down Q&A, this was the Politico lede from Feb. 9, 2009, under the doomsday headline: "Cheney warns of new attacks":

Former Vice President Dick Cheney warned that there is a "high probability" that terrorists will attempt a catastrophic nuclear or biological attack in coming years, and said he fears the Obama administration’s policies will make it more likely the attempt will succeed [emphasis added].

That’s right, Obama’s "policies," which at the time were two weeks old, were endangering America and making it susceptible to nuclear attack. (Cheney doesn’t really do subtleties.) On its face, the fearmongering claims were preposterous. But Politico’s Mike Allen, Jim VandeHei, and John Harris played it straight. Worse, they played it as big, from-his-lips-to-our-ears news.

And let’s not lose sight of just how extraordinary it was for Allen/VandeHei/Harris to even care what Cheney had to say in early February of 2009, because I can’t stress enough how completely unprecedented it is for any major Beltway news outlet to turn to a dislodged vice president as a partisan newsmaker less than one month after he left office. And for Cheney to be the object of Politico’s newsroom desire last February was even more bizarre since the Republican had just completed his stint as arguably the most unpopular politician in modern day White House politics. (Somewhere Richard Nixon was smiling.)

That is not an exaggeration. According to a CBS/New York Times poll at the time of the Cheney’s White House departure, his job approval rating stood at a how-is-that-possible 13 percent. Yet despite his historically poor standing with the public, and despite the fact that his party had just been trounced in an electoral landslide, and despite the fact that former VPs were never considered to be newsworthy just two weeks after they packed their White House bags, there was the Politico brain trust in February 2009, sitting at Cheney’s knee ("Suddenly a man of leisure … his own mood was relaxed, even loquacious") and treating him like he was still vice president — treating him like he was a popular vice president. Treating Cheney like a man with all the answers.

For Palin, it hasn’t just been Politico’s staff that’s adopted the unfortunate stenography approach to covering the failed VP candidate. The truth is that since the launch of her book last November, Palin has refused to sit down with a single serious, independent reporter. Instead, she’s stuck close to lifestyle interviews (i.e. Oprah and Barbara Walters) as well as taking questions from her professional right-wing media enablers.

Can you imagine the media caterwauling if, for instance, Hillary Clinton published a book and then refused to sit down with a single nonpartisan cable TV host, radio talker, or political reporter from a major newspaper or magazine? If Clinton roped off the press while she only did interviews with The Nation, Rachel Maddow, and Air America? The Beltway press would go berserk mocking Clinton for her timidity. But Palin completely snubbed the D.C. press corps, and rather than calling her out, journalists rewarded her with probably tens of millions of dollars in free book publicity. (Not that most Americans even cared about her book launch.)

Worse, Palin’s refusal to engage directly with the press has, at times, led to confusion about what she did and did not say. The confusion may be purposeful on her part, but it hinders public debate and makes precise journalism nearly impossible. That trend was famously highlighted after Palin posted on Facebook her claim that proposed Democratic health care reform would mean bureaucratic "death panels" would ultimately decide whether Americans would live or die. (Palin specifically referenced her parents and her son as possible "death panel" targets.) Of course, the claim was thoroughly debunked and eventually named "Lie of the Year." In response to that dubious achievement, Palin returned to Facebook and claimed people had misunderstood her original "death panels" reference. It was an explanation some journalists echoed before Media Matters then debunked that as well.

But guess what? If Palin, like virtually every other politician on the planet, agreed to talk to real reporters on occasion, that kind of "confusion" would quickly be solved. Rather, Palin hides from the press. And instead of punishing her for her timidity, journalists act as dutiful stenographers by typing up Palin’s online postings — which she may or may not write herself — and treating them as news.

From a journalism perspective, the whole spectacle has been embarrassing to watch. As David Weigel at The Washington Independent noted, "The media’s indulgence of Palin’s strategy — which often results in pure stenography of press releases that may or may not have been written by her — is ridiculous, bordering on pathetic."

And Weigel’s right. Those Facebook postings are nothing more than modern-day press releases, yet they’re treated as news. In the not-so-distant past, newsroom trash cans (both physical and email) were filled with politicians’ press releases, tossed aside by dismissive scribes who would never dream of lowering themselves to regurgitating quotes typed up on some hand-out. Media elites didn’t waste their time with press releases.

First of all, it’s considered an embarrassment and a public acknowledgment that journalists don’t have any juice; that they don’t have real access to important people. Second, typed-up statements don’t lend themselves to context or understanding. But for covering Palin, regurgitating press releases has suddenly become the accepted norm.

From a recent Wall Street Journal news article:

The White House is fending off charges from Republicans, who suggest the administration should have turned over Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to military custody and declared him an "enemy combatant."

Sarah Palin, former GOP vice presidential candidate, said in a Facebook message that Abdulmutallab is "not just another criminal defendant. It simply makes no sense to treat an al Qaeda-trained operative willing to die in the course of massacring hundreds of people as a common criminal." [emphasis added]

That’s just nuts. If Palin steadfastly refuses to engage with journalists and insists on hiding behind her Facebook page, there’s simply no reason reporters should give online press releases from a failed VP candidate (and half-term governor) the slightest bit of attention.

Indeed, if members of the Beltway press corps have any self-respect left, they’d call off the stenography sessions and get back to practicing real journalism.

Source: Media Matters for America