Palin Meets The Press

And John McCain is left in the wings

Last night, the Republican Party officially nominated Senator John McCain for president of the United States—but you wouldn’t know it to look at this morning’s news. The front page of Google News’s elections section this morning offered this snapshot: vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin was the focus of the headline in twelve out of nineteen current stories.

Palin, the governor of Alaska, gave her acceptance speech last night, so it’s not surprising that she dominated the news. But the extent to which she has drowned out all other aspects of the convention is remarkable, and it might be a problem for the McCain press shop in the long run. During my Google News check, I found that the GOP nominee got only two headlines all his own—the same number as Democratic nominee Barack Obama, who should be struggling for any coverage during the Republicans’ convention week. And this story, from Republican-friendly Fox News, reflects McCain’s challenge: “McCain Faces High Bar After Palin Speech…”. Is Palin, the surprising and controversial VP pick who has proved to be an extraordinarily gifted speaker, at risk of upstaging the presidential nominee?

The coverage of last night’s speech was broadly favorable (John Dickerson’s story in Slate is representative), establishing Palin as a likable and competent candidate. After spending the past week fending off scandals about her use of government power, her contradictory stands on earmark spending, and, of course, her teenage daughter’s pregnancy, the GOP could not have hoped for a better outcome. While the aforementioned issues are far from settled—she perpetuated the earmark debate by repeating her opposition to the “Bridge to Nowhere,” even though her administration kept the money allocated for the project—she has changed the storyline. Now the press is discussing why she helps McCain, not whether she hurts him.

Delaware’s Joe Biden achieved a similar feat last week with his speech accepting the Democratic vice-presidential nomination. The generally well-received speech was credited with finally changing the subject away from speculation of a dramatic showdown between Obama supporters and those loyal to new York senator Hillary Clinton. But Biden never threatened the presidential nominee’s place in the spotlight. Neither did Bill or Hillary Clinton, for that matter—even when they were the focus of coverage, the debate was about the top of the ticket, not the secondary spot.

A comparison of the Project for Excellence in Journalism’s “Buzz Detector” for the Democratic and Republican conventions shows the differnce between each event’s center of gravity. PEJ uses five online news sources as a barometer of convention chatter: The Drudge Report, Huffington Post, Technorati, Yahoo! News, and YouTube. On the first day of the Democratic Convention, Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton split the buzz, with Bill Clinton sharing attention with these women on day two. While Barack Obama was not a leading character in either story, Michelle Obama was his proxy, and his off-stage presence was powerfully felt in the Clinton coverage.

Here’s the day one buzz of the GOP convention: The top stories on both Yahoo and the liberal HuffPo raised questions about the extent of the McCain campaign’s vetting of Sarah Palin. Technorati, which ranks stories based on how widely blogs link to them, had Maureen Dowd’s satire of the Palin pick at number one. Several of the most popular YouTube videos were even more biting Palin satires, though the most-watched video showed Democracy Now host Amy Goodman’s arrest while covering protests outside the convention. Only the conservative Drudge Report led with McCain, complaining: “Media Turn on McCain In Election Showdown.” Palin grabbed focus of all the outlets on day two, except for YouTube, where Amy Goodman in handcuffs was still a crowd favorite.

When Obama took the stage on the final night of the Democratic convention, it was the climax of a week-long buildup. McCain, in contrast—who certainly didn’t win the nomination with his rhetorical skills—may end up like someone who arrives late to his own party only to find that everyone likes the new kid better. But in assessing Palin’s impact, the press would do well to remember that the vice-presidential nominee hasn’t historically done much to help a ticket. (Exhibit A: Mondale/Ferraro.) This election has been unusual in many ways, and it’s possible the veep will be a decisive factor this time. But once the convention ends and the Palin story is old news, the press will refocus its attention to the top of the ticket. If history is any guide, voters will still be deciding between Obama and McCain, not Obama and Palin—even if Republicans are beginning to think that might be a stronger match-up.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.