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Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin

Posted: September 3, 2008 12:49 PM

Unqualified for Duty


One of the problems with modern political journalism is that when something manifestly absurd takes place, as long as there are people willing to argue both sides, our top reporters feel obliged to treat it as deserving of serious debate.

Case in point: John McCain's selection of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Palin would be spectacularly unqualified for the job of vice president even if McCain were immortal. But the prospect of her suddenly being thrust into the leadership of the free world has got to leave everyone but the most loyal, talking-point-equipped partisans deeply chilled.

This is not a question of her politics. And it has absolutely nothing to do with her gender. It's not even strictly speaking a question of experience. Conceivably, somebody with even less experience than Palin could meet what everyone should be able to agree is a basic requirement for the office: That she or he has given serious thought to the national and international issues of our time.

Is there any evidence that Palin is anything other than an utter neophyte when it comes to issues such as Iraq, the economy, health care, and domestic and foreign policy generally?

Palin's lack of the most basic prerequisite for the job should be the dominant message of the news coverage. Instead, her selection was hailed as a "bold move," with her lack of qualifications relegated to the status of a Democratic complaint. Instead, the media establishment has let itself get drawn into a number of alternate story lines, some of them certainly quite fascinating, but none of them as essential.

What possible reason is there to nominate someone so lacking in gravitas for the vice presidency? In this case, of course, it couldn't be more obvious that Palin's selection has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with governance. Palin's gender and her hard-right credentials were clearly seen by McCain's top advisers as just what the campaign needed.

Whether that was a clever or suicidal political calculation remains to be seen. It's certainly looking more and more like it was a reckless one. But it doesn't just strain credulity -- it pulverizes it -- to suggest that she is the best and most qualified person McCain could find for the job.

It's a tremendous failure of political reporting that such patent spin from McCain supporters is being treated like a supportable position. By contrast, it seems to me that anyone suggesting that Palin was selected for anything other than political reasons should be considered presumptively a liar from this point on.

This is not a radical view. Here, for instance, is Richard Cohen on the Washington Post op-ed page yesterday:

Probably the most depressing thing about Palin is not her selection but the defense of it. It has produced a parade of GOP spokesmen intent on spiking the needle on a polygraph. Looking right into the camera, they offer statement after statement that they hope the voters will swallow but that history will forget. The sum effect on the diligent news consumer is a feeling of consummate contempt for the intelligence of the American people -- a contempt that will be justified should Palin be the factor that makes McCain a winner in November.

Even though the cable networks can find matched pairs of pundits to take opposite sides on just about anything, I can't help but think that the vast majority of political journalists recognize that there is something seriously out of whack with the Palin selection.

So it's time for our elite political reporters to look into their own heads and decide: Do you value what's in there? Or are you willing to report whatever people tell you?

This post originally appeared on the Watchdog Blog at NiemanWatchdog.org.

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