By the time this interminable presidential campaign is over, we may all have our favorite examples of MSM gone wild –whether by way of blatant bias; unfounded allegations; intense scrutiny of one candidate while giving a free pass to the other (fill in the names as you like); etc.
But for a prize specimen of hazily sourced trashing of Sarah Palin in particular, I am marveling right now at an article from the CNN web site, which — a joint labor of not one, not two, but three CNN reporters — has been getting enough attention to have popped up this evening on the main screen of google news.
The headline is “Palin’s ‘going rogue.’ McCain aide says.” Well hey, that sounds juicy.
But who is the “McCain aide” who is saying this? It turns out the aide quoted in the headline is never named. The article begins with the sweeping statement that with the election imminent, “long-brewing tensions between GOP vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin and key aides to Sen. John McCain have become so intense they are spilling out in public” — but according to whom? Well, apparently it’s not so public that anyone doing the spilling is willing to be named. So CNN wraps up that bold intro with: “Sources say.”
The next paragraph mentions “Several McCain advisers” — unnamed — “who have become increasingly frustrated with what one aide” — unnamed — “described as Palin ‘going rogue.’ ”
So the quote in the headline is from an unnamed source who is one of several unnamed advisers, rounding out a picture attributed to unnamed sources (plural).
It gets better. Briefly, there is “A Palin associate” — unnamed — offering a defense of Palin. Then the criticisms resume, with the article citing: “McCain sources” — unnnamed — “A Second McCain source” — unnnamed (and not clear if this second source is one of the previous plural McCain sources, or an independently consulted unnamed source). That “second McCain source” is quoted for two full paragraphs, taking nasty swipes at Palin, but the source remains anonymous.
Then we get “A Palin associate” — unnnamed, and unclear if this is a second Palin associate, or the same one unnamed above — who is described as defending her, but the quote given to illustrate this defense is actually a criticism, describing Palin, as “not good at process questions” (according to this unnamed “associate,” who is further referred to only as “this Palin source”).
Then, at last, in connection with what is described as a defense of Palin, we do get a name — an actual name — that of Palin’s press secretary, Tracey Schmitt, who is also described here as having tried urgently to end an unscheduled session Palin had with the press. But there is no attribution for this information, and the only quote from Schmitt herself, which comes lower in the article is a statement she gave to traveling reporters that: “Unnamed sources with their own agenda will say what they want, but from Gov. Palin down, we have one agenda, and that’s to win on election day.”
After the mention of Schmitt, it’s back to the unnamed sources, this time by way of “a different Palin adviser” — unnnamed — who is quoted delivering yet more backhanded criticism of Palin (“We acknowledge that she should have been out there doing more,” etc).
Then a reference to a story on Politico, which mentioned by name two McCain advisers, Nicolle Wallace and Steve Schmidt, as having decided to limit Palin’s initial press contact to Charlie Gibson and Katie Couric, “which all McCain sources admit were highly damaging” — note, the “all McCain sources” here are all unnnamed.
CNN did get an email response on the record from one McCain source, Nicolle Wallace, “If people want to throw me under the bus, my personal belief is that the most honorable thing is to lie there.”
Then it’s back to “But two sources, one Palin associate and one McCain adviser” —both unnamed — “defended the decision to keep her press interaction limited… both saying that she was not ready and that the missteps could have been a lot worse.”
From there it’s on to “another McCain source with direct knowledge of the process…” — unnnamed. From this source, identified on second reference as “The source” — still unnnamed — comes another quote that takes a swipe at Palin.
There follows a brief account that “Yet another senior McCain adviser lamented the public recriminations.” And “this adviser” — who is, guess what? also unnamed — is then quoted as talking about “finger-pointing and scapegoating” in the campaign.
Finally, near the bottom of the article, we are handed the highly relevant information (but putting it higher in the story would have deflated the entire story) — that squabbles among aides are pretty normal: “Tensions like those within the McCain-Palin campaign are not unusual; vice-presidential candidates also have a history of butting heads with the top of the ticket.” (Then comes the lone paragraph mentioning that Joe Biden “has gone off the reservation as well” — though in this case there are apparently no sources, anonymous or otherwise, worth quoting to illustrate dissent in the Biden-Obama ranks).
But this comes only after about 20 paragraphs in which the slamming of Palin is done by “sources” who cannot be challenged or further questioned, because they are anonymous. The article ends with some lines from a Democratic pollster, who — imagine this! — is quoted by name, Peter Hart, delivering one last swipe at Palin.
There are circumstances in which journalists may reasonably cite or even quote unnamed sources. And if campaign reporters are privy to squabbles among aides, that may well be an interesting story. But when a story amounts to a litany of swipes framed as quotes from nameless “sources,” there comes a point at which a line is crossed between news and rumor, between reporting and hype, between anonymous in-house gossip and “spilling out in public.” Is it Palin who’s going rogue here? Or CNN?