Media Obsession: 5 Questions For Palin

If John McCain had picked Mitt Romney or Joe Lieberman to be his running mate, news organizations (Politico included) would have had profiles and analyses at the ready the instant the news went out.
Instead, McCain’s choice threw the chattering class for a loop, to put it mildly. And it turned political journalists into instant biographers who were scrambling frantically to learn the key political and personal details to answer the question of the moment: Who is Sarah Palin?

This is a fluid moment — and a hazardous one — for both Palin and McCain. The default assumption of many reporters and editors is that someone who was elected Alaska governor just two years ago can’t be remotely prepared to be president on Day One, should the need arise. Conservative activists, meanwhile, have found a new heroine (check out our e-mail if you have any doubt) who loves to hunt and who strongly opposes abortion rights.

The truth is, neither skeptics nor boosters really know all that much about Palin. Over the next 72 hours, whether she becomes a new star of the GOP or an albatross will be determined in large part by a wave of second- and third-day news coverage about McCain’s unexpected running mate.

Naturally, there will be the usual articles about her record in passing bills in Alaska and her positions on certain hot-button issues. But the inquiries that have the most potential to explode will delve into more sensitive terrain.

Based on the experience of several election cycles and (firsthand) knowledge of the professional habits and assumptions of the news business, here are five questions about Palin that reporters and editors will try to answer before she addresses the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn., on Wednesday:

1. What’s in her passport?

The most intense doubts about Palin flow from a belief that the former mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, does not know enough to be an effective commander in chief.

How much her passport has been stamped does not necessarily speak to that. But if it turns out she has rarely traveled abroad — or has never been to any foreign country other than Canada — this will be seized upon instantly.

George W. Bush, for instance, had to swat away questions in 2000 about his thin travelogue.
Palin’s best hope on the sensitive point of her foreign policy credentials is that expectations for her in the Oct. 8 vice presidential debate in St. Louis against Joe Biden (chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) are so low that Palin will be able to soar above them.

What we know so far

2. Who pays the bills?

This is a question that resonates especially with subjects who are not already on the national scene.

Most people who have been prominent on the Washington stage already faced extensive disclosure requirements and have seen or weathered financial controversies at close range. People who suddenly spring to fame, by contrast, are often unprepared for the onslaught of skeptical questions about their finances and business relationships.

Recall how the glow of history-making that accompanied Democrat Geraldine Ferraro’s selection as Walter Mondale’s running mate was soon overtaken by a furor over husband John Zaccaro’s business dealings.

What we know so far

 

3. Does she believe in evolution?

Palin was selected in part because she is a social conservative. And one complaint social conservatives have about the news media is largely true: Most reporters and editors are more secular in their outlook than the general public, according to a number of studies over the years.

This does not mean that Palin will receive biased coverage because of her religious views. But it does mean that many reporters trying to learn about her will be curious about the role religion plays in her life, whether she considers herself born again or evangelial, and whether she has espoused views that many journalists would consider exotic, such as a belief in creationism or prophecies of an eventual apocalypse.

What we know so far

4. What’s her family life like?

This is an especially sensitive one. But based on conversations with journalists, operatives and average voters, it is one that is on a lot of people’s minds: How does a mother of five children who are still at home, one of whom is an infant born with Down syndrome, plan to manage the demands of a national candidacy or the White House?

Is this a question that would be asked of a man? Certainly not in an earlier era, though cultural expectations about the role of fathers have changed enough that even a male politician might expect some questions on this score. And Palin supporters will surely, and perhaps legitimately, cry sexism if she is hazed about whether she is neglecting her family. But this is unquestionably a set of questions that Palin, as well as her husband, former high school boyfriend Todd Palin, can expect to face.

What we know so far

5. Has she been nice to people on the way up?

Big, nuanced biographical portraits of politicians take time. On the other hand, any good reporter can get a pretty fair quick sketch of a statehouse politician in a couple of days. Every one of the 50 state capitols has an in-crowd of legislators, political operatives and state reporters who love to gossip and are more than eager to share their thoughts with national reporters who ask: What’s your take on this person?

Whether the answers are favorable or damaging will depend less on Palin’s partisan leanings or her governing agenda than on how people who regularly deal with her find her at the personal level. Is she accessible to the press and does she answer questions straightforwardly? Is she vindictive to legislators who cross her? Does she have a sense of humor? Would you want to share a meal with her?

Politicians who are likable and have nurtured good personal relationships along the way find that their reputations are a lot sturdier when a hurricane of opposition researchers and reporters blows into town.

What we know so far