FAIRFAX, Va. — Republicans were already fired up for John McCain and Sarah Palin this week when Fred Thompson took the stage here to turn up the heat a little more — with a full-throated attack on the media as a co-conspirator with the Democrats in an effort to smear and destroy Palin.
"This woman is undergoing the most vicious assault that anybody has ever seen in public life," Thompson said.
A half hour later, the Republicans lined Old Lee Highway to watch the campaign motorcade pull away. As McCain and Palin rolled by, they cheered. As the press van approached a second later, they booed.
It was no accident.
Ever since McCain chose the largely unknown Palin as his running mate, his campaign has waged an intensive assault on the news media.
Capitalizing on errors, rumors and perceived sexism in the frenzied first round of reporting on Palin, the McCain campaign has taken advantage of a changing media landscape, grouping together blogs and supermarket tabloids with mainstream newspapers and television to tar the media as one corrupt monolith, stirring up the conservative base and working to pressure the media from further aggressive reporting on Palin.
The campaign insists that it was only trying to back off a sloppy and irresponsible media.
"Our campaign would much rather prefer to aim our criticisms at our opponent's record of inexperience than the shortcomings and misrepresentations that appear in the media," said McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds.
"But when the reputation and good standing of our candidate or running mate are on the line, we are going to point out unfair and inappropriate coverage."
There was some mistaken and controversial coverage — some from the new media, some from the old.
The liberal dailyKos Web site, for example, posted an item the day Palin's selection was announced speculating that she hadn't actually given birth to a fifth child this year and that the baby was really her daughter's.
That prompted media inquiries to the campaign asking if it were true, which in turn moved Palin to announce that her daughter was pregnant.
There were arguably sexist comments from such journalists as Sally Quinn of The Washington Post questioning whether Palin as a mother of young children could or should handle the job.
There were flat-out mistakes, such as The New York Times report that Palin had been a member of the Alaskan Independence Party, which pushed for a vote to secede from the union. She hadn't been, though her husband, Todd, had.
Some of the tabloid coverage got a boost from the McCain camp itself. During the convention, the campaign put out a statement denouncing the National Enquirer for a story that accused Palin of having an extramarital affair. Some Websites wrote about the allegation based on the campaign's statement, which was distributed Sept. 3, two days before the Enquirer story was distributed.
That was an ironic reversal for conservatives. Weeks before, conservatives lambasted the news media for not picking up an Enquirer story on an affair by Democrat John Edwards' — allegations that Edwards later admitted. Now they demanded that the media ignore the Enquirer's Palin story — then blamed the media collectively anyway.
"The smearing of the Palin family must end," McCain communications guru Steve Schmidt said in that statement. "The efforts of the media and tabloids to destroy this fine and accomplished public servant are a disgrace."
But the McCain camp didn't push back only against those media flubs. It moved seamlessly against many legitimate questions posed about Palin's record and experience.
When CNN pressed a McCain spokesman to identify an example of Palin's experience commanding the Alaska National Guard, one of her bragging points, the campaign retaliated by ruling out a McCain interview with Larry King.
It turned out that Palin never has commanded the Alaska National Guard to do anything, according to the Anchorage Daily News.
When other reporters asked questions about Palin's experience, McCain's campaign accused the media of being sexist, charging that "nobody" had ever asked about Barack Obama's experience, despite thousands of articles mentioning Obama's relative inexperience.
Accusing the media of smearing a candidate is "a standard tactic" for politicians who don't want scrutiny, according to Brooks Jackson, director of Annenberg Political Fact Check, which operates the non-partisan voter resource FactCheck.org.
Indeed, hammering the media is hardly new.
Former Vice President Spiro Agnew thrilled Republicans during Richard Nixon's term when he called the news media "an effete corps of impudent snobs" and a "tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men, elected by no one." The elder George Bush took relish in the slogan "annoy the media, elect Bush."
Even the Obama campaign complains about media coverage, sometimes in pointed calls to reporters. Adviser Robert Gibbs calls it "working the ref" to get more favorable coverage.
But it's perhaps an easier sell for Republicans, who are more inclined to distrust media that polls have shown to include more liberal Democrats than conservative Republicans.
And it's easier still in an age when a large percentage of voters get their news only from media that reflect their own thinking, such as Fox News's Sean Hannity for conservatives and MSNBC's Keith Olbermann for liberals.
"It's always been a tactic in the playbook of both parties. But at a time when more voters can get their information from ideologically tailored sources, it's an even easier sell," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
"Partisans on both sides have their favorite sources of information and they get frustrated when the mainstream media doesn't follow the same talking points."
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