Next week, USC’s Annenberg School for Communications plans to award Katie Couric its highest honor, the Walter Cronkite Award, for Excellence in Television Journalism. No one doubts that Couric won this award primarily for her takedown of Sarah Palin in her September interview. John Ziegler, who featured this incident prominently in his documentary Media Malpractice, has a new column at Fox News decrying the decision to honor what he sees as dishonest journalism:
Now, for there to even be such a thing as an prize for “Excellence in Television Journalism,” in an age where a desperate thirst for ratings has caused most TV “news” to become little more than glorified infotainment, is a bit like passing out awards for fiscal responsibility to members of Congress. But for Katie Couric, the poster child of news as “infotainment,” to be the recipient of such an “honor” is like giving John Murtha or Barney Frank a trophy for frugal spending in Congress.
But what makes this situation so particularly galling is the specific reason why Couric is being honored for her “excellence in journalism.” Couric is being presented with the award for “Special Achievement for National Impact on the 2008 Campaign.”
What was it that Couric did that was so “special”? The judges singled her out solely for “her extraordinary, persistent and detailed multi-part interviews with Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.”
Of course, there is no disputing the fact that the perception created by Couric’s interview and the ensuing media and entertainment coverage of it clearly had an enormous impact on the 2008 presidential election. But is this the kind of “achievement” that journalism is supposed to be honoring? (If it is, shouldn’t the award really go to Tina Fey?) And is there any doubt that if Couric asked Palin the exact same questions and she had been viewed as performing well (or if one of her softball interviews with Barack Obama had brought down his candidacy) that there would be no awards for her from USC or anyone else of note?
Who can answer the latter question? There simply isn’t a basis to conclude anything, because outside of one ABC primary debate, no one bothered to ask Barack Obama any really tough questions. Not only did Charles Gibson and George Stephanopolous not get nominated for industry awards after that debate, most of their colleagues pilloried the duo for showing a lack of respect to Barack Obama — who did indeed stumble through the tough questions, and on national TV.
If Couric gets a pass, then perhaps it’s because the rest of her colleagues need some cover for doing the exact same thing. No one except David Freddoso bothered to research the Chicago Annenberg Project, for instance, the only executive experience Barack Obama could claim before running for President. The only media organizations interested in Obama’s connections to the Chicago Machine and his laughable claims to have pushed for its reform were media organizations already in Chicago — whose voices were ignored by the national news orgs. Despite plenty of source material being public on Jeremiah Wright and Obama’s strong ties to the controversial preacher, it took over a year before anyone would report on Wright’s incendiary sermons and Obama’s substantial financial support for Trinity United Church of Christ. Most of that coverage took the tone of tongue-clucking disapproval of the entire topic.
In comparison, when John McCain announced his selection of Sarah Palin as running mate, the national media sent dozens of people to Wasilla to dig up dirt on the Governor. Aside from a story already known about a state trooper, the only thing they managed to find was a tanning bed in the governor’s mansion … which Palin bought herself, second-hand. We got plenty of conjecture about the supposedely radical nature of Palin’s Pentacostalist beliefs, while the media claimed that Wright’s “God damn America” was off topic. Had the media dedicated one-tenth the resources investigating a little-known first term Senator running for President as they did for a little-known first term Governor running for VP, we may have had a very different election.
So why should we be surprised when an industry conducts a little CYA by honoring someone who helped make the rest of the coverage look good in comparison?