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A Study in Character Assassination: Executive Summary

Apart from politicians embroiled in scandals, rarely have the public perceptions of a candidate soured so quickly. According to Pew Research Center polls from September and October, the percentage of the public that sees Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin unfavorably shot up from 32 percent to 49 percent in just one month.


Sarah Palin

Why have so many Americans turned against Palin, who made such a strong impression on the public when John McCain introduced her as his running mate at the Republican convention in September? Most likely, it's because the few good reports they've heard about the Alaska governor have been overwhelmed by a blizzard of bad reports. ABC, NBC and CBS news shows are covering Palin intensively, and they are running 18 negative stories for every positive one.


Network coverage of Palin has moved beyond criticism to outright ridicule. Strikingly, all three networks have repeatedly aired clips of Palin being parodied by a comedy show, NBC'sSaturday Night Live, leading to concerns that many Americans are confusing the real Palin with SNL's figure of fun. When have comic impressions of a political figure ever qualified as hard news?


CMI reviewed network news coverage of Palin for the two weeks beginning September 29 and ending October 12, the period before and after the October 2 vice-presidential debate. We found that ABC, NBC and CBS have been stridently critical of Palin. Before the debate, the networks characterized her as a dunce whose shortcomings were dividing the GOP. After Palin laid to rest concerns about her competence by performing well in the debate, the network narrative changed: Palin became a demon, victimizing Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama with unfair criticism


Major findings:


  • Major network news shows ran 69 stories about Sarah Palin between September 29 and October 12. 37 stories were negative, just 2 were positive, and 30 were neutral. Not a single evening news show ran a positive story about Palin.
  • Overall, 21 network stories portrayed Palin as unintelligent and unqualified. 8 of these stories played a total of 11 clips of Saturday Night Live ridiculing Palin. 14 segments featured the most embarrassing clips from Palin's interview with Katie Couric.
  • 9 stories emphasized attacks on Palin by conservative columnists.
  • 14 stories demonized Palin as little more than John McCain's attack dog.
  • ABC was hardest on Palin, with 9 negative stories (60%), 6 neutral (40%) and no positive stories. NBC ran 15 negative stories (54%), 13 neutral (46%) and no positive stories. CBS ran 14 negative stories (54%), 10 neutral (38%) and 2 positive (8%).

Conclusion


Network coverage of Sarah Palin has been so distorted and out of balance that the public cannot trust what they're hearing from ABC, NBC and CBS about the GOP vice-presidential nominee. The networks have been so intent on assassinating Palin's character that they have turned for added ammunition to sources they normally ignore - conservative columnists and comedians.


Sarah Palin's nomination changed the presidential race, creating a real threat to the media's preferred candidate, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. ABC, NBC and CBS have rallied to Obama's defense by working hard to bring Palin down.