Who, Exactly, Gotcha?

Let’s identify wild finger pointing for what it is

As Liz noted yesterday morning, Howard Kurtz’s column in Thursday’s Washington Post focused on the McCain camp’s accusation that the media, particularly some female reporters, were practicing “gotcha journalism.” Here’s Kurtz:

Even as some conservative commentators have panned her performances and fretted about how the Alaska governor will fare against Sen. Joe Biden, Palin has challenged the ethics of those interviewing her. Her running mate, John McCain, has complained about “gotcha journalism.” And a top campaign official says female journalists are being especially mean to Palin.

The “mean girls” complaint, following on the heels of the “gotcha journalism” charge, originates from senior McCain advisor Nicole Wallace, who said: “I’m shocked personally at how brutal many of the women in the media have been.” Kurtz’s take is diplomatic, but his opinion of the complaint is clear. “All this may or may not add up to a stab at the age-old technique of preemptive spin,” he writes.

Kurtz should have been more forceful in addressing—even reframing—the complaint. If “Female Journalists Say ‘Gotcha!’” is the headline Wallace would love to see, then the conflated double accusation—that “gotcha journalism” is in play right now, and that female journalists are (at least currently) the main perpetrators of it—is something that should be pointed out, not just analyzed as a lump sum.

Couric, one of those accused of playing the “gotcha” game, asked Palin about making a statement that McCain has criticized Obama for making. It’s an extremely fair question about where Palin stands on an issue, or whether she even knows McCain’s stance on it—not a “gotcha” moment. Kurtz is right to call most of Couric’s questions (and those of others) “straightforward.”

But the McCain camp implication that the “gotcha” impulse stems from a motivation that is beyond just journalistic (see, there are the female broadcasters, Couric and Campbell Brown, but then there are also those female comediennes of Saturday Night Live, who satirized the Couric-Palin sit-down), that this is a ganging-up kind of thing, simply doesn’t hold water. And it skims past the fact that Palin’s folks largely called Charlie Gibson’s question about the Bush Doctrine a “gotcha” question as well. Gibson then, Couric now? This is just finger pointing, which happens to be directed, oh, this time, at female journalists.

Why let the McCain campaign keep framing the Palin and press narrative? (Reread that headline suggestion, wonder if the “gotcha journalism” charge is morphing into yet another sexism charge, and then weep.) Why not stress its odd redundancy? The media have been accused of many wrongs in its coverage of Palin, some of them legitimate and many of them not. It stands to reason that the press should address not only the pointed charge (this time it’s female journalists), but also the overarching charge that hasn’t relented in all this time (that it’s a general journalistic attack). It sounds surprisingly defensive to state, as Kurtz does, that Couric’s questions were straightforward. Because though it nips Wallace’s “women in the media” complaint in the bud, it also lends some credence to the charge rather than hammering home the fact that the charge is nothing but generic campaign spin.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.