Charles Gibson goes limp in the Friday installments of the Palin interviews.

Media criticism.
Sept. 12 2008 11:47 PM

Palin vs. Gibson, Round 2

The reporter goes limp and forfeits to the candidate.

Sarah Palin and Charles Gibson.
Sarah Palin and Charles Gibson

An impostor slipped into a baggy Charles Gibson suit tonight to interview Sarah Palin on ABC's World News and 20/20. The impostor asked decent questions, just like the real Gibson who interviewed the candidate for broadcast on Thursday night, but the impostor failed to chase her down with follow-ups that prevented her from espousing the trite and platitudinous.

For instance, when the impostor Gibson asked, "How much smaller would a McCain administration budget be? Where would you cut?" Palin palavered about finding "efficiencies" in the agencies allegedly blocked by "bureaucracies." Yet the impostor did not steer her back to the quantitative question: "How much smaller?"

He did a little better trying to pin her down on her earmarks philosophy and the "bridge to nowhere," but after reviewing that segment five times, I'm not sure I could accurately express her position. She seems to be against earmarks on principle, for them when it's practical, against them when lobbyists are secretly sticking them into bills, but for them when the earmark is requested in the full glare of sunlight.

That Palin continues to insist that she told the federal government "thanks but no thanks" for the bridge at the same time she acknowledges that the state of Alaska kept the federal earmark money set aside for it reveals her true position. When she said in her interview, "Earmark abuse will stop" in a McCain administration, Gibson had what he needed to confront her and definitively clear the air. Instead, he wimped out.

Blustering about earmarks makes for great politics, but it's the least important policy issue facing the candidates. Earmarks are just a few kernels in the super silo that is the federal budget. As columnist Robert Samuelson wrote in the Washington Post last month, "In 2008, earmarks numbered 11,610 and cost $17.2 billion, estimates Citizens Against Government Waste. That's less than 1 percent of federal spending." To paraphrase Eugene McCarthy, it isn't the fat in the budget we should worry about, it's the lean. If "mavericks" like McCain and Palin were serious about cutting the deficit and the budget and really believed in smaller government they'd stop talking about earmarks and efficiencies and promise to eliminate entire programs. Where is the real Charles Gibson when you need him?

(Aside: Palin displays a verbal tick in these interviews that I predict Saturday Night Live will pick up on. She loves the word unacceptable, using it to describe 6.1 percent unemployment, the national debt, and the Russian invasion of Georgia. She sounds like an aggrieved parent chewing out the kids. Appropriate is another Palin favorite, usually modified by the word not. As best as I can tell, one not appropriate is worth about 20 unacceptables.)

The biggest miss of the evening came when the faux Gibson asked Palin for her views on abortion. She is for reducing the number of abortions, but who isn't unless there is a League of Recreational Aborters out there trying to set new records? She prattled on about there being room for disagreement about abortion, but Gibson neglected to ask what that means. Does it mean other women should be allowed to make a different choice than she would?

Gibson (or his double) ducked his journalistic duty when he allowed Palin to declare her opinions on abortion without insisting that she state where her views would end and policy would begin in a McCain administration (or a Palin administration).

Talk about unacceptable.

******

I paraphrased Eugene McCarthy above, in part because I can't find his precise quotation. The closest I got to his original was testimony by Earl Ravenal at a 1978 House Committee on the Budget. Said Ravenal, "There is a statement Eugene McCarthy made last year. He said, 'It isn't the fat in the defense budget that ought to worry us; it's the lean." Send better citations to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (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.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word unacceptable in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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