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Scrutinize the president, not Palin

By Matt Welch, Special to CNN
  • Matt Welch says media outlets are giving huge attention to a data dump of Palin e-mail
  • Meanwhile, he says, there's scant coverage of Obama's comments in weekly radio address
  • He says media have disproportiante fascination with Palin, ignore important stories
  • Welch: Press would have to hate Obama more if we expect them to cover him better

Editor's note: Matt Welch is Editor in Chief of Reason, and co-author of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What's Wrong with America (PublicAffairs).

(CNN) -- On Friday afternoon the websites of the five most important newspapers in the United States -- the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today -- each had above their digital folds the same breaking story: It seemed the former governor of the 47th-most populous state in the union, a woman who holds no elected office now and almost assuredly will not again anytime soon, had thousands of e-mails from her 21-month tenure data-dumped Video onto the public.

The New York Times responded with a rare burst of interactivity, inviting readers "to point out items of interest." The Washington Post had video, a photo gallery, live updates, and headlines such as "Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin's e-mails show a constant concern with how she is portrayed in the media, on matters big and small."

Transparency advocates doubtlessly breathed a sigh of satisfaction that sunlight-disinfectant was being applied to a government figure. And people with any sense of political proportion were left with an additional thought: When is this journalistic scrutiny going to be applied to politicians who wield actual power?

For instance, one might nominate the president of the United States for such attention. On Saturday, June 4, in his weekly radio address, Barack Obama did what he has consistently done since taking the oath of office: fudged reality to make his policies sound better.

In a premature victory lap over his controversial bailout of Detroit automakers, the president made the highly dubious assertion that not taking over Chrysler and General Motors would have "put a million people out of work," a claim resting on the notion that "bankruptcy" equals "liquidation," which it does not.

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He said, both presumptively and inaccurately, that "we're making sure America can out-build, out-innovate, and out-compete the rest of the world." And he gave the distinct -- and distinctly false -- impression that Chrysler has repaid every dime of what it owes American taxpayers, mostly by saying "Chrysler has repaid every dime and more of what it owes American taxpayers for their support during my presidency -- and it repaid that money six years ahead of schedule."

Glenn Kessler, who writes "The Fact Checker" blog for the Washington Post website, described Obama's address as "one of the most misleading collections of assertions we have seen in a short presidential speech. Virtually every claim by the president regarding the auto industry needs an asterisk."

A president misleading the public on one of his most crucial policies at a time when Americans are increasingly anxious about the economy sounds kind of newsworthy, no? Well, don't tell the editors of the New York Times -- they were too busy nailing down this important story:"Palin Says She Didn't Err on Paul Revere."

What's particularly odd about the media's disproportionate fascination with Sarah Palin is that it comes coupled with a palpable journalistic fear that we're not challenging Sarah Palin enough.

Three weeks ago, the journalism navel-gazing community was abuzz over an academic study of more than 700 news articles and 20 network news segments from 2009 that addressed a single controversial claim of the health care reform debate.

Was it President Obama's oft-repeated whopper that he was nobly pushing the reform rock up the hill despite the concentrated efforts of health care"special interests?" Was it his oft-repeated promise that "If you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan," something that is getting even less true by the minute? Was it the way Obama and the Democrats brazenly gamed and misrepresented the Congressional Budget Office's price-tag scoring of the bill?

No. The cause for Obamacare-coverage reconsideration was not the truth-stretching claims made by a president seeking to radically reshape an important aspect of American life, but rather the Facebook commentary of ... Sarah Palin. "In more than 60 percent of the cases," the authors found, "it's obvious that newspapers abstained from calling [Palin's] death panels claim false." Horrors.

There is no shortage of politicians deserving to have their e-mails combed through, no dearth of urgent stories that could benefit from the kind of journalistic enthusiasm we saw Friday afternoon.

Did you know that a reported dozen armed agents kicked down a guy's door at 6 a.m. this week in Stockton, California, and handcuffed him in his boxer shorts in front of his three bawling pre-teen kids -- to execute a search warrant for the Department of Education involving suspected loan fraud by his allegedly estranged wife? You wouldn't if you get your news from the Sacramento Bee, San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, or L.A. Times, California's biggest newspapers.

But fear not! Now we know that "The 'First Dude' played a particularly influential role in the administration" of a short-term, small-state governor. The lessons for Michelle Obama, then, are clear: If you want the non-Amtrak media to give you attention, they're going to need to hate your husband a little more.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Matt Welch.

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