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A Study in Character Assassination: How the TV Networks Have Portrayed Sarah Palin as Dunce or Demon

In just one month, the percentage of Americans who viewed GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin unfavorably soared from 32 percent to 49 percent, according to a new survey. Might hostile media coverage account for Palin's skyrocketing unfavorable rating?


Polls conducted in September and October by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press report a stunning reversal in public perceptions of Palin. An October 21 story posted on Pew's Web site stated: 'In the current survey, 49% of voters express an unfavorable opinion of the Alaska governor, while 44% express a positive opinion; in mid-September, 54% viewed Palin favorably, compared with 32% who had an unfavorable opinion.


According to a Nexis search, the networks ran 69 news segments covering Palin between September 29 and October 12, a period that included the October 2 vice-presidential debate. CMI analyzed all 69 segments and found that 37 portrayed Palin negatively, only two were positive, and 30 were neutral.


Tone of Palin

CMI defined 'positive' stories as stories that included more elements placing Palin in a favorable light than elements criticizing her. 'Neutral' stories contained equal numbers of positive and negative elements, represented straightforward factual reporting, or treated Palin and Democratic vice-presidential nominee Del. Sen. Joe Biden equally. 'Negative' stories contained more unfavorable elements than favorable, or gave preferential treatment to Biden. For example, on NBC's October 3 Today show, reporter Amy Robach said Palin 'accused' Biden of 'looking backwards,' but she said Biden merely 'challenged' whether GOP candidate John McCain is truly a 'maverick.'



ABC was the most biased of the three networks. Out of ABC's 15 segments about Palin, 9 (60 percent) portrayed a negative image of the Alaska governor, and 6 (40 percent) were neutral. NBC was the second-most biased network with 15 negative stories (54 percent) and 13 (46 percent) neutral. CBS was the least biased with 14 (54 percent) negative stories, 2 (8 percent) positive and 10 (38 percent) neutral. The positive portrayals appeared in the two halves of CBS Early Show anchor Harry Smith's two-part interview with Palin's parents.


Not one of the evening network news shows ran a positive story about Palin.


The overwhelming preponderance of negative stories might have been justified if all the news about Palin had been bad, but the two major news events affecting Palin coverage during the study window tilted both ways. At the beginning of the study period on September 29, Palin was still enduring network news attacks that replayed, over and over again, the most problematic moments from her September 24 interview with CBS News anchor Katie Couric. Four days into the study window, however, Palin turned in a solid performance in the highly publicized October 2 debate with Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Biden.


CMI found that during the study period, the media crafted three principal narratives about Palin. 1) Palin is a dunce lacking the qualifications and intellect to be Vice President. 2) Conservatives are revolting over the dunce's nomination. 3) Palin is a demon, little more than an attack dog victimizing Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama.


Narrative 1: Palin Is a Dunce, Lacking Qualifications and Intellect


Rarely have the news networks based so many 'news' reports on a comedy show or an old interview from a rival network. Couric's interview with Palin, however, and Saturday Night Live's demeaning parodies by Tina Fey, proved to be irresistible clubs for beating up the GOP vice-presidential nominee. Most observers agree that Palin did not perform well in the Couric interview, but the network coverage dwelled on the worst moments, making Palin look as unprepared and inexperienced as possible. No fewer than 21 network news stories attacked Palin's qualifications and intellect, and 8 of these featured ridicule from SNL. 14 stories replayed the most embarrassing clips from Palin's CBS interview with Couric. ABC played 3 Couric clips, CBS aired 5, and NBC aired 6. (The CBS count does not include the original airing of the interview.)


On September 29, as Palin prepared for the upcoming debate with Biden, ABC reporter David Wright said on Good Morning America: 'Her advisers are trying to lower expectations, but even among some conservatives, expectations couldn't be any lower.' Wright went on to play a clip from Palin's interview with Couric, and an SNL clip of comedienne Tina Fey as Palin saying she was 'disheartened' by finding so many 'foreigners' at the United Nations. Next up: a clip of a Colorado voter saying, 'Can she do this? Can she be the president if something happens to John McCain?' Finally, a clip from a conservative columnist saying Palin had given the impression that, 'she is in way, way over her head and she is not ready for primetime.'


On NBC's September 30 Today show reporter Andrea Mitchell said, '…the McCain campaign is now so worried about Palin's ability to debate Joe Biden, she's gone home with the McCains for debate camp in Arizona.…' Mitchell repeated her theme that evening on NBC's Nightly News, saying, '… Sarah Palin, after reportedly not doing well in practices, retreating to McCain's Sedona compound to work with his top aides. After doing very few interviews and getting some poor reviews, like this answer on the bailout…' Mitchell went on to play an unflattering clip from the Couric interview.


Another clip from the Couric interview appeared on October 1 on ABC's Good Morning America, NBC's Today and NBC's Nightly News:


KATIE COURIC: What newspapers and magazines did you regularly read before you were tapped for this to stay informed and to understand the world?


SARAH PALIN: I've read most of the, again with a great appreciation for the press, for the media, coming…


COURIC: But like, what ones specifically, I'm curious, that you …


PALIN: All of them, any of them that have been put in front of me over all these years. I have a…


COURIC: Can you name a few?


PALIN: I have a vast variety of sources where we get our news too. Alaska isn't a foreign country.


The network coverage of this exchange left the impression that Palin was unable to identify any news sources because she isn't interested in current events - an implausible supposition to make about an accomplished politician.


The networks would have provided a more accurate portrayal of Palin had they highlighted the Alaska governor's thoughtful responses to other questions from Couric. For example, when Couric asked, 'Do you consider yourself a feminist?,' Palin responded:


I do. A feminist who believes in equal rights. I believe that women, certainly today, have every opportunity that a man has to succeed and to try to do it all, anyway. And very, very, thankful that I've been brought up in a family where gender hasn't been an issue. You know, I've been expected to do everything growing up that the boys were doing.


NBC and CBS both re-aired clips of John McCain and Palin accusing CBS of 'gotcha' journalism. However, none of the networks rebroadcast Palin telling Couric on the October 1 Early Show, 'It would be sexist if the media were to hold back and not ask me about my experience, my vision, my principles, my values.'


Palin's strong performance during the October 2 vice-presidential debate sucked the oxygen out of the attacks on her qualifications and intellect. (Even in the National Organization for Women's online 'NOW on PBS' poll, as of October 22, 50 percent of respondents say Palin is 'qualified to serve as Vice President of the United States' [poll url: http://www.pbs.org/cgi-registry/poll/poll.pl].) Nevertheless, the evening after the debate, NBC's Andrea Mitchell dismissively noted, 'Palin had the biggest burden, after two embarrassing network interviews. In her one debate, she tried to charm her way through the hour and a half.'



Will the Real

The NBC comedy show Saturday Night Live (SNL) doesn't make national news very often, so the obsessive network coverage of SNL ridiculing Palin may be unprecedented. During the study period, 8 network segments aired a total of 11 clips of actress Tina Fey's impersonations of Palin. Funny stuff, but is it news? James Poniewozik of TIME magazine pointed out in an October 9 article, 'The governor's comedian doppelgänger has essentially taken control of Public Sarah Palin: the composite of images, biography and attitudes that stands in for the actual person in voters' minds.' This couldn't have happened without the help of the news media.



On the September 29 Today show, NBC's Mitchell played an SNL clip written to make Palin look foolish, then played clips from Palin's Couric interview alternating with Fey's parodies of the same lines:


[SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE CLIP]


TINA FEY AS SARAH PALIN: Katie I'd like to use one of my lifelines.


AMY POEHLER AS KATIE COURIC: You don't have any lifelines.


FEY: Well in that case I'm just gonna have to get back to ya!

Palin and Fey

[PALIN CLIPS ALTERNATING WITH FEY PARODIES]


SARAH PALIN: But ultimately what the bailout does is help those who are concerned about the health care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy, helping, it's gotta be all about job creation.


FEY AS PALIN: Those that are concerned about the health care reform that is needed to help shore up our economy. To help, it's gotta be all about job creation.


[END CLIP]


ABC's Nightline similarly blurred the lines between the real Palin and her impostor on October 1. Producers played a real exchange between CBS's Katie Couric and Palin, and edited in a fake Palin SNL clip:


KATIE COURIC (CBS News): I'm just going to ask you one more time not to belabor the point, specific examples in his 26 years of pushing for more regulation.


GOVERNOR SARAH PALIN (Republican Vice-Presidential Candidate): I'll try to find you some and I'll bring them to you.


TINA FEY (Saturday Night Live): Well, in that case I'm just gonna have to get back to ya!


Robert Thompson, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University, noted the important role that impersonations of public figures can play. He told The Denver Post that because 'the whole bit stayed pretty much to transcript, it really reframed Sarah Palin as this inheritor of the George W. Bush school of I-can't-complete-a-sentence.'


Narrative 2: Conservatives Are Rejecting the Dunce


Based on criticism of Palin from a handful of conservative writers, the network news created the impression that conservatives and Republicans were rejecting the vice-presidential nominee. Network news programs ran a total of nine stories about conservative criticism of Palin.


On September 26, conservative columnist Kathleen Parker published a column called 'The Palin Problem.' On September 29, three days before the vice-presidential debate, ABC ran a story called 'The Palin Problem?' on Good Morning America. Correspondent David Wright said, 'even Fox News raised questions … highlighting conservative critics of Palin.' Later in the same broadcast, George Stephanopoulos asserted, 'She's become a problem for Senator McCain' and 'the buzz on Sarah Palin has gone all bad.'



Rush? Rush Who?

Over on CBS, Maggie Rodriguez introduced a segment on The Early Show by claiming, 'But the question a lot of Americans are asking this morning, including some prominent Republicans, is whether Sarah Palin is ready.' Correspondent Jeff Glor stated, 'some conservatives are concerned.' During an interview with Palin, Evening News anchor Katie Couric noted, 'Some Republicans have said you're not prepared, you're not ready for prime time.' On September 30, the Early Show aired the Couric clip again. Correspondent Dean Reynolds repeated a similar charge during the October 2 Evening News: 'McCain has dismissed criticism, including some from conservative quarters, of the Palin pick.'



NBC's Andrea Mitchell stated in her report on Today, 'Palin's critics now include some conservative commentators,' before quoting Parker's column and cutting to a clip of New York Times columnist David Brooks criticizing Palin's performance in the Couric interviews. In a Nightly News report on October 1, Mitchell again noted, 'Even some conservative commentators say Palin is not ready for prime time.' Only NBC's Today made even a modest effort to balance the criticism, inviting former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney to respond to the barbs a few conservatives were tossing at Palin.


The networks failed to mention that Palin enjoyed the enthusiastic support of far more influential conservative pundits, including premier talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Mark Levin. Limbaugh has described Palin as 'a breath of fresh air.' Ingraham wrote, 'Palin's instincts appear to be sound' and 'she is certainly the most promising such figure to come along since the elites were denouncing Ronald Reagan.'


Narrative 3: Palin Is an Obama-Attacking Demon


With attacks on Palin's competence blunted by her debate performance, the media switched to a new approach: depicting Palin as nothing more than GOP presidential nominee John McCain's attack dog. In the days following the debate, network coverage of Palin focused almost exclusively on criticizing her for criticizing Obama, with 14 separate stories repeating the 'attack' theme. Rather than investigate the substance of Palin's accusations against Obama, the media suggested the criticism was somehow improper.


The morning after the debate, on Good Morning America, ABC's Kate Snow used the word 'attack' to describe both Palin and Joe Biden. By that evening, Snow was singing a less balanced tune, singling out Palin. On World News with Charles Gibson, Snow noted, 'Sarah Palin continued on the attack today in an interview with Fox News, calling Barack Obama unqualified.' Snow also stated that during the debate, 'Sarah Palin's line of attack was basically 'let's not look backwards.'' Of Biden, she simply asked Time magazine's Mark Halperin, 'On substance did you think he nailed it?'


Over at NBC, Amy Robach said Palin 'accused' Biden of looking backwards at the Bush administration rather than looking forward. Biden, in contrast, merely 'challenged' the notion that McCain is a maverick.


NBC's Savannah Guthrie noted on the October 4 Saturday Today, 'The day after the debate, Sarah Palin kept up the attack on Barack Obama.'


NBC's Lester Holt introduced an October 4 NBC Nightly News segment by saying, '[McCain's] running mate Sarah Palin was campaigning hard today in Colorado and California where she unveiled the campaign's new attack strategy against Obama.' Holt's colleague, Savannah Guthrie, noted in her report, 'Sarah Palin launched a new line of attack on Barack Obama, tying him to William Ayers, former member of an anti-war group linked to bombings in the 1970s.'


On NBC's October 5 Sunday Today, co-host Jenna Wolfe stated, 'John McCain's campaign has decided to go on the attack, and the first shot was fired during a Saturday rally by running mate Sarah Palin.' Wolfe cut to a clip of Palin saying, 'Our opponent is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country.'


Later that day on NBC's Nightly News, Holt asked Guthrie, 'Can we - we expect this continued line of attack coming from Sarah Palin?' Guthrie responded:


Absolutely. I think this is the Sarah Palin we're going to see out on the campaign trail for this next month. Aides say this is a role she's comfortable with. One told me she's a competitor. They also think she's particularly effective here. Look, everything Governor Palin does gets attention. They think when she issues a tough new line against Barack Obama, it rises above the din of other campaign news. So this is something we'll see from her. The campaign tells me they're ready to fight back.



ABC: Palin

During ABC's October 5 World News Sunday, correspondent David Wright reported, 'Today in San Francisco, Sarah Palin defended her incendiary comments that Barack Obama has been palling around with terrorists' and showed a clip of Palin saying, 'I think it's fair to talk about where Barack Obama kicked off his political career, in the guy's living room.' Wright asserted, 'It's likely to be the first of several new lines of attack with Sarah Palin at the vanguard.' Anchor Dan Harris asked, 'So why does Team McCain feel it has to be so aggressive?'



On NBC's October 6 Today, Andrea Mitchell reported, 'as John McCain stayed home to prepare for this week's second presidential debate, Palin led the charge against Barack Obama.' Mitchell played the following clips of Palin:


'Our opponent is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country.'


'I think it's fair to talk about where Barack Obama kicked off his political career, in the guy's living room.'


ABC's Nightline aired a relatively balanced piece about campaign attacks on October 6. David Wright characterized Palin's remarks as, 'She told everyone who'd listen that Barack Obama pals around with terrorists.' Wright was gentler in his assessment of the attacks launched by Obama, saying, 'But the Obama campaign is not above some guilt by association themselves. Today they released this Web documentary chronicling McCain's role in the savings and loan scandal.' Anchor Cynthia McFadden stated, 'McCain running mate Sarah Palin drew blood over the weekend, saying Obama pals around with terrorists.' Nightline aired clips of Palin saying:


'I'm just so fearful that this is not a man who sees America the way that you and I see America.'


'They don't quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they're listening, and then talks about though how bitterly they cling to their guns and religion when those people aren't listening.'


'I'm afraid this is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to work with a former domestic terrorist who had targeted his own country.'


CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric reported on October 7, 'In recent days, [Obama's] been under a nonstop verbal assault from Sarah Palin.' Reporter Wyatt Andrews issued a 'Reality Check' to counter Palin's statements, and CBS aired the following Palin clips:


'Barack Obama is going to raise your taxes.'


'He voted 94 times for higher taxes.'


'Quote, ''air raiding villages and killing civilians.''


'Bill Ayers is an unrepentant terrorist.'


NBC's Mitchell stated during an October 7 Nightly News report, '[Palin's] jibes about Obama have increasingly provoked ugly crowd responses. Like today, when Sarah Palin exaggerated Obama's criticism of some civilian deaths in Afghanistan.' Mitchell illustrated her point by showing McCain-Palin supporters loudly booing Obama.


On October 8, CBS Evening News anchor Couric stated, 'the Republican ticket was back in attack mode today' and noted to colleague Chip Reid, 'I guess you might call it a tag team event.' Reid reported, 'Sarah Palin described Obama as somebody just trying to talk his way into the White House.'


ABC's Nightline devoted another segment to the McCain campaign's attacks on October 9. David Wright reported, 'Sarah Palin has already shown she's very adept at thrusting in the knife.' He also noted, again, that 'At every campaign stop, Sarah Palin suggests Obama is a terrorist's best friend.' Wright presented a Palin clip as evidence:


'One of Barack Obama's earliest supporters is Bill Ayers. Bill Ayers was part of a group that launched a campaign of bombings against our Pentagon and our own United States Capitol.'


The networks failed to acknowledge adequately that Palin was doing more during her speeches than attacking Obama. She was also talking about issues, McCain's plans for the nation, and her own qualifications. In a speech in Clearwater, Florida on October 6, Palin noted what she has done in office in Alaska:


As mayor and as a governor, I reminded people that government is not always the answer. In fact, government too often is the problem. So we got back to basics and we put government back on the side of the people.


As mayor, I eliminated taxes on personal property and I eliminated taxes like small business inventory taxes. Those burdens on our small businesses, we got rid of them. Property taxes were too high. Every year that I was in office I reduced [taxes].


And as governor, I brought the same agenda of positive change on a state level. I came to office promising to control spending, by request if possible, but by veto if necessary. And today, our state budget is under control and we have a surplus. And I put the veto pen to nearly half a billion dollars in wasteful spending.


(Applause)


We suspended our state fuel tax and I'm returning a chunk of our surplus money right back to the people of Alaska. It's their money and they can spend it better than government can spend it for them.


(Applause)


Imagine that. Imagine that, having that principle. And that's what we're going to bring on a national level also. That principle of knowing that - no, the people, our families, our businesses they know best so let them keep more of what they earn and produce and not have this government take trying to quote, 'solve' all the problems for our families and our businesses. No, we're not going to do that.


Conclusion


ABC, NBC and CBS are distorting the public perception of Sarah Palin by incessantly assassinating her character, even citing people they usually ignore, conservative columnists, because they have criticized Palin. The networks have actually stooped to mocking Palin by repeatedly rebroadcasting parodies from Saturday Night Live, as if frivolous entertainment belongs in the evening news.


Rich Noyes, the MRC's research director, found in his study, Obama's Margin of Victory: The Media, that 'the Big Three broadcast networks have showered Obama with positive - even glowing - news coverage, protected the candidate from the attacks of his rivals, and shown little interest in investigating Obama's past associations or exploring the controversies that could have threatened his campaign.'


CMI can now add that the networks are portraying Obama's opponents - especially Sarah Palin - in the worst possible light.