Two weeks ago, I noted that in previewing the 2000 debates, the Associated Press asserted: "Gore, who has been staging mock debates under a massive model shark at Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida, cannot afford self-aggrandizing exaggeration (as in, 'I took the initiative in creating the Internet'), mean attacks or smarty-pants condescension."
Watching tonight's debate previews on MSNBC and CNN, it's striking that the journalists participating don't seem to care whether Sarah Palin tells the truth tonight. After all, this is a candidate who introduced herself to America with a false claim exaggerating her role in stopping the "bridge to nowhere" -- then, when caught, she kept right on making the very same false claim.
Yet the media -- once hypersensitive to the mere possiblity that Al Gore might be guilty of "self-aggrandizing exaggeration" and ever-alert for anything a candidate might do that plays into preexisting weaknesses -- don't seem to care whether Palin tells the truth tonight.
UPDATE: Here's another example: The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza offers his take on "What to Watch For" tonight. No mention of the possibility of Palin making a false claim. And little more than passing mention of anything substantive, for that matter.
The media and pundit class has spent much of the day talking about "expectations" for tonight's debate, with the consensus being that they are much lower for Palin. Here's Politico's take this morning:
For Republicans, Palin's stumbles with Couric have been a mixed blessing. While the slip-ups raised questions about the Alaska governor's readiness for national office and increased pressure on her to perform in her sole joint appearance with Biden, they also sent already low expectations plunging even further.
Palin's aides are seeking to raise the bar for Biden just as it has been lowered for Palin.
The expectations game conceals an underlying reality. Obama's camp chose Biden as a running mate in part because he can be an electrifying, passionate presence on television, one who regularly won post-debate focus groups and snap polls in the primaries, and one who has used his (earned) reputation for gaffes to good comic effect. Palin, by contrast, was chosen for her symbolism and her stump speeches -- not for her mastery of the unpredictable formats of interviews and debates.
It's fine for the punditry to decide that there are lower expectations for one candidate or the other - but the thing everyone should be clear on is that there must be the same standard for both. Both candidates are running for the same office. Both have a chance to be a heartbeat away from the presidency. Both have to show they are capable of performing effectively in that role. Both have to meet the same standard - and neither should be awarded bonus points for exceeding "expectations."
The "expectations game" is just that: a game.
Much of the news media is reporting that Barack Obama is pulling away from John McCain ... and suggesting that, because of low expectations, Sarah Palin need only get through tonight's debate without accidentally endorsing Obama in order to be successful. Put the two together, and it's hard to avoid the suspicion that the media is more than ready to push a McCain-Palin "comeback" narrative -- and, consciously or not, to help that comeback along.
Don't believe that kind of thing happens? Here's Brian Williams and Howard Fineman, in a September 21, 2000 exchange:
HOWARD FINEMAN: The media pendulum swings, as you were pointing out before, Brian. Bill Clinton can resurface in this campaign in a way that might not necessarily help Al Gore. And Al Gore himself has a tendency to begin - when he's ahead especially I think - talking down to the country like he's the kindergarten teacher talking to the class. I think all those factors are at play right now as Bush has really had probably the best week he's had since his convention speech. And Gore has had his worst.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: Howard, I don't know of any kind of conspiratorial trilateral commission-like council meetings in the news media. But you bring up an interesting point. And boy, it does seem true over the years that the news media almost reserve the right to build up and tear down and change their minds and like an underdog. What's that about?
HOWARD FINEMAN: Well, what it's about is the relentless search for news and the relentless search for friction in the story. I don't think the media was going to allow just by its nature the next seven weeks and the last seven or eight weeks of the campaign to be all about Al Gore's relentless triumphant march to the presidency.
We want a race I suppose. If we have a bias of any kind, it's that we like to see a contest, and we like to see it down the end if we can. And I think that's partly the psychology at play here.
Because they make the media do (even more) foolish things. Paging Politico.
Headline: "Psychics: Stars not aligned for Palin"
[Elizabeth] Joyce, whose website claims she was "born with the authentic gift of psychic ability," was one of a handful of prominent psychics Politico surveyed to get a better "sense" of how the Palin-Biden matchup might shake out. According to their occult minds, Biden has the edge and, ominously, the moon and stars are not aligned in Palin's favor.
Joe Biden "has benefited from resources and relationships not available to average Americans."
And yes, that's an A1 story today.
Instead of adopting the ready GOP strategy of bashing it. NPR examines the gamble the McCain camp took.
Steven Pearlstein piles on the disdain regarding the unfolding financial crisis:
Other than not really understanding the problem and not really having studied the proposal, you guys are doing just great! Thank God there is a mainstream media out there that actually does reporting and has people who understand thing, because if the flow of information and news to the American people were left solely to bloggers, we'd be in a big mess.
Yes, thank God the mainstream media cast such a skeptical eye on Wall Street over the years. We can't thank Pearlstein's pals enough.
During the 2000 campaign, New York Times reporter Katharine Seelye promoted the image of Al Gore as a liar and exaggerator -- and she did so by making up things that he never said, then explaining that they weren't true.
This morning, Seeyle posted a preview of tonight's VP debate on the Times blog The Caucus. In it, she outlined what she'll be "watching for," both generally and for each candidate. Given her previous obsession with falsehoods and exaggerations, and given Sarah Palin's well-documented penchant for both, you might assume Seeyle would mention the danger for Palin in saying something that isn't true, or in exaggerating her record.
Wrong. Seeyle didn't devote so much as a single word to the possibility that Palin might say something incorrect or unduly self-aggrandizing. Apparently, that isn't as important to Seelye as the crucial question of whether Biden will "help Ms. Palin with her chair."
Never content to let political events unfold on their own, the press seems obsessed with reminding us, ad nauseam, just how important the Next Big Thing is.
After last week proclaiming 100 million people were going to watch the first presidential debate (a Chuck Todd prediction that was only off by 46 million), the press goes right back to the hype game for Thursday's VP forum:
"Probably the most-anticipated vice presidential faceoff ever." (AP)
"Probably the most anticipated vice presidential debate ever." (Chicago Tribune)
"The most anticipated vice presidential debate in history." (San Francisco Chronicle)
"The most anticipated vice presidential debate in history." (Newsweek)
"What may be the most anticipated vice presidential debate in history." (Politico)
How should tonight's showdown be described? Seems washingtonpost.com got it right when it dropped the breathless hype in favor of actual journalism: "Tonight's heavily anticipated debate."
See, that's not so difficult.