The news abhors a vacuum. Politicians, public-relations disinformers, media consultants, and other spin artists may think it's wise to suppress the elemental force that is the news. But when the news breaches the container it's been stuffed into, mayhem results.
Journalistic mayhem is a fine description for the last couple of days of Sarah Palin coverage. Starved to the point of collapse from the restricted-calorie diet served at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, the press needed a news feast to restore its powers. With the Republicans' convention lite staring them in the face, the ravenous press corps decided to switch the menu from St. Paul to New Orleans. The evening news anchors—NBC, CBS, ABC—were all defecting to the Gulf Coast over the weekend. But then the press scented the lard-fried Snickers bar that was Palin. Now that Hurricane Gustav has fizzled, there is only one disaster story to cover, and she's it.
Would the press be tearing into the Palin story with the same passion had the Democratic Convention produced news beyond the Clinton-Obama pissing match? Or had the press not already put itself to sleep producing hundreds of stories speculating on who the veep nominees would be? Or had Gustav turned the Superdome into a giant soup bowl? I think not.
Thanks to McCain's miscue, everything the press touches about Palin turns into a scoop: her earmark flip-flops, her political inexperience, her Alaska Independence Party connection, her views on teaching "creationism," her book-banning phase, plus the "troopergate" scandal, her husband's ancient DUI, and her pregnant teenage daughter. And the press rampage has only just begun.
The press isn't retaliating for having been starved. Like an undammed river, it's merely returning to its original path. Palin and John McCain and the Republicans deserve every column inch, every broadcast second of scrutiny they're getting. I believe—unlike Barack Obama—that members of a candidate's family are fair game once a candidate thrusts them onto the public stage—as did Palin when McCain presented her as his pick for vice president in Dayton, Ohio, last Friday. The eagerness with which politicians deploy their children as campaign props stands as an open invitation to the press to write about them. And because kinfolk tend to exploit their familial connections to the executive branch (Donald Nixon, Billy Carter, Roger Clinton), the press will want to keep an eye on Palin's extended family, too.
The press is merely doing on short notice what the McCain campaign's vetting team should have done between March—when he clinched the nomination—and now: properly vetting his vice-presidential candidate. Does Palin have what it takes to serve as president? Do any Tom Eagleton- or Spiro Agnew-type skeletons lounge in her closet? Will Joe Biden eat her alive in their vice-presidential debate? Can she subordinate herself to McCain?
Like the Democrats, the Republicans created a news vacuum into which they hoped to insert a mock convention that would rubber-stamp the nominee's agenda and send happy vibes to the electorate. The Democrats got away with it in Denver, but luck has shone on the news beasts in St. Paul. Even if an asteroid were to blot out New Orleans today, a giant squid were to topple the Golden Gate Bridge tomorrow, and fire ants were to kill every human on Fire Island by the end of Thursday, the biggest story of the week would still be McCain's cockeyed selection of Palin.
Thanks to McCain's goof, news will abound for the next three days. It won't be an open convention, but it will be more open than the Republicans ever anticipated. Reporters will push delegates to defend Palin's qualifications and the manner in which she was selected. The commentariat will fill the void with jaw music about Palin on every channel. Some Republican looking to make a name for himself (and earn a dagger in the back) may even call for Palin to step down before she's nominated. This is like a replay of George H.W. Bush's pick of Dan Quayle for vice president in 1988, only worse!
Until somebody in the press corps with the proper rank sends the McCain campaign a thank-you note for tapping Palin and restoring vitality to the coverage, this column will have to do. Thanks, y'all!
Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times lists what we missed due to the cancellation of Monday's festivities at the St. Paul convention. If only the GOP had shrunk the convention down to a short one-nighter emceed by a quarreling Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann. While we're on the topic, who should replace Matthews when his MSNBC contract expires next year? All nominees sent to firstname.lastname@example.org will be considered, except wise-guy nods for Sarah Palin. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)