Network News's High-Tech Lynching of Sarah Palin

A West Hollywood prankster is making Halloween headlines by hanging Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin in effigy. But the real story of the past few weeks is the news media's high-tech lynching of the Alaska governor.

Coming out of the Republican nominating convention in early September, Palin was viewed favorably by 59 percent of Americans, according to ABC News.  In mid-September a majority of Americans, 54 percent, still viewed her favorably and only 32 percent viewed her unfavorably, according to Pew polls. By mid-October, Pew reported her negatives soaring to 49 percent and her positives dropping to 44 percent.   

Yesterday, CMI released a brand-new special report assessing network television news coverage of Palin during the week of the October 2 vice presidential debate and the subsequent week:  “A Study in Character Assassination: How the TV Networks Have Portrayed Sarah Palin as Dunce or Demon.”  Don't be intimidated by the lengthy title. The report's a quick read, and the key findings ought to make the news media blush with shame:

69 network news stories: 2 positive, 37 negative.  During the two weeks beginning September 29 and ending October 12, ABC, NBC and CBS news shows ran a total of 69 stories about Palin.  Only 2 of the 69 stories were positive, meaning they cast Palin in a favorable light.  37 were negative, and 30 were neutral.  The 2 positive shows were the two halves of a CBS interview with Palin's parents.  For the statisticians out there, that's a negative/positive ratio of 18½:1.

Positive evening news stories about Palin: 0. Not a single broadcast by ABC's World News, NBC's Nightly News, or CBS's Evening News – the principal sources of news for  millions of Americans – aired a positive story about Palin during the two-week study window.

Stories suggesting Palin is a dunce: 21.  After the Republican convention, when Palin pushed McCain past Obama in the polls, the media launched a series of frenzied efforts to discredit her.  Remember how Palin could only serve as Vice President by neglecting her disabled newborn son?  How Palin scandalously put the state jet up for sale on eBay?  How Palin shouldn't be supported by religious voters because her unwed daughter was pregnant?  How Palin was trying to hide her (in news media eyes) wild and crazy religious beliefs?  How Palin's former pastor was supposed to be as extreme as Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama's albatross, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright?  None of it stuck until – thank the spirit of H.L. Mencken – Palin herself gave the media the opening it needed with her less than stellar performance in her September 25 interview with Katie Couric.  At the beginning of the study window on September 29, the networks were still drumming home the “Palin isn't smart enough to be Vice President” message by playing clips of the ugliest moments in the Couric interview.  Every network buttressed the Couric clips by ridiculing Palin with more clips from Saturday Night Live parodies.   Eight network news stories played a total of 11 SNL clips, sometimes even editing them into footage of the real Palin.  Since when do old clips from a rival network or comic impressions of a politician count as hard news? When you're trying to bring a candidate down by any means possible.

Stories depicting Palin as a demon: 14.  Palin's performance during the October 2 debate largely blunted the “Palin is a dunce” narrative.  The nets immediately opened a new line of attack, demonizing Palin for “attacking” Obama.  Unfortunately for the networks, the “demon” gambit forced them to repeat Palin's critiques of Obama, alerting the public to a variety of Obama's embarrassing associations and values that the media had been studiously ignoring, such as his ties to Weather Underground terrorist William Ayers. 

Obama has been gradually dropping in the polls, but not as quickly as Palin's negatives have continued to rise.  An October 24 ABC/Washington Post poll found Palin at 46 percent favorable, 51 percent unfavorable.   

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas famously said he had been subjected to a “high-tech lynching” by Senate Democrats, abetted by a hostile news media, during his 1991 confirmation hearings.  With their shrinking viewing audience, declining circulation numbers and crumbling credibility, and the rise of the alternative media, the establishment news media are generally perceived to be declining in power.  They may be ailing, but their apparently successful high-tech lynching of Sarah Palin proves they ain't dead yet.

Brian Fitzpatrick is senior editor at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.