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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Just when you thought journalistic ethics couldn’t get any worse

Zackary Roth has an important piece up on the TPM site that notes the profoundly disturbing way many news networks competed for interviews with Mark Sanford by promising to go easy on him and let him spin the “hiking” story the way he wanted. E-mails sent to Sanford’s press people included the following:

• David Gregory: “coming on Meet the Press allows you to frame the conversation as you really want to… You know [Sanford] will get a fair shake from me and coming on Meet the Press puts all of this to rest.”
• Producer for the MSNBC Morning Joe show: “Of course the Governor has an open invite to a friendly place here at Morning Joe, if he would like to speak out.”
• Producer for MSNBC anchor Contessa Brewer “…Mark could spin this favorably if he talks it up as the outdoors man in the woods etc. For all we know he’s contemplating the last year of his term and thinking through his priorities before he goes on his family vacation.”
• Anchor for WIS-TV – “Off the record, I think this whole thing is ridiculous. Sounds like slow news day stuff.”

This promise of favorable treatment as an enticement to get a political figure to appear on a particular show is disturbing enough in the case of a governor like Sanford. But its implications are even more – there’s no other word for it – sinister — in the case of two other figures who every TV show is going to be absolutely desperate to snare – Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney.
Palin, obviously, will be desperate to limit her exposure to easy “softball” interviews and it’s all too easy to imagine the sleazy promises many shows will make to get her – “Don’t worry, no Cokie Roberts type-stuff”, “we’ll ask you the right kinds of questions ” etc. Romney also will want to avoid all manner of challenges about his changing positions over the years. Obviously, hard-right conservatives like Palin know that they can get a free ride on a FOX show, but so does the audience. It’s much more disturbing to imagine a competition in laxity among all the other networks as well.
Let’s say it plainly: the competition for these two political figures is going to be a vile, no-holds barred race to see which interviewer can flush every speck of his or her journalistic integrity down the toilet — a championship face-off in the World Olympics of media pandering.
But what can Democrats do about this?
Here are three quick ideas:

1. Democrats should insist that TV or other interview shows reveal the terms of any deal they offer Palin or Romney in order for them to appear. If the shows refuse to disclose this, they should be called on it. In fact, under federal communications law, undisclosed “sweetheart” interview deals might even qualify as kickbacks – they are far more valuable to the subjects than cash.
2. The moment any TV show announces an upcoming interview with Palin or Romney, Democratic magazines and websites should immediately begin proposing questions that the interviewer should ask. The Republicans made a big and effective stink claiming that a network show featuring Obama on health care would be slanted before it even aired. Democrats should make no less of an advance stink about likely kid-gloves treatment of Palin or Romney.
3. Desirable Democratic interview subjects should make it clear that they will avoid interviewers who give Palin or Romney kid-gloves treatment and will seek out honest journalists instead.

George Carlin used to have a comedy routine about the TV commercials that promoted new drugs by saying “remember to ask your doctor to prescribe XYZ”. Carlin commented: “When you name the drugs you want your doctor to prescribe, he’s not a doctor any more, he’s a pusher.”
In the same way, when the producer of a network news show promises a political guest control over the questions and formats of their appearance in order to get them to appear on a particular show, he or she is not a news professional any longer, but the journalistic equivalent of a streetwalker.

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