Thursday's ABC News interview with Sarah Palin not only was a test of her media skills but also of the reputation of ABC News anchorman Charles Gibson.
No other nominee in memory for such high national office has spent a week under a “no interview” blanket, including such news-making vice presidential candidates as Geraldine Ferraro and Dan Quayle.
In the fiercely competitive world of network news, bagging the exclusive interview with the foremost newsmaker of the moment is called “the get” and ABC got it – and is playing it big.
Palin's one-on-one meetings with Gibson will dominate the ABC airwaves for two days, with segments scheduled to air on “World News,” “Nightline,” “Good Morning America” and a special edition of “20/20” at 10 p.m. today.
“World News” was based out of Fairbanks, Alaska, on Thursday and will originate from Palin's hometown of Wasilla today.
In Thursday's segment, the focus was on international affairs.
Asking Palin a quick series of questions, Gibson took little opportunity to explore Palin's views in depth.
He accepted largely at face value her responses, which didn't stray far from the positions of her running mate, John McCain.
While ABC News before the interview trumpeted her response to a question about whether the U.S. might have to go to war with Russia if it invaded a NATO ally – her response was “perhaps so. I mean that is the agreement” – the most awkward moment came when Gibson asked her if she supported the “Bush doctrine.”
Palin paused, then asked Gibson which aspect of the Bush doctrine he meant.
It became clear that Palin didn't know that “Bush doctrine” is shorthand for the idea that it is acceptable for the U.S. to attack another country before that country has attacked the United States. It is perhaps the most debated aspect of the decision to invade Iraq.
Gibson didn't call attention directly to Palin's lack of knowledge. Instead, he worked an explanation of the Bush doctrine into his next question.
ABC said the McCain-Palin campaign approached it about the interview this week and offered the exclusive series with Gibson, who also interviewed McCain at the Republican convention.
“There were no conditions – we can ask whatever we want,” ABC spokeswoman Cathie Levine said.
McCain's campaign had kept Palin away from interviewers since her nomination, complaining initial media coverage was intrusive.
Rick Davis, McCain's campaign manager, told Fox News that Palin wouldn't be talking to reporters “until the point in time when she'll be treated with respect and deference.”
“She's not scared to answer questions,” Davis told Fox's Chris Wallace. “But you know what? We run our campaign, not the news media.”
In Gibson, Palin faced a news veteran with deep Washington experience and one who has interviewed the last seven presidents.
But Gibson also was criticized for his handling, with colleague George Stephanopoulos, of the April debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, which many critics said focused on trivial issues.
Gibson's handling of the Palin interviews is sure to be closely examined as well.
“He needs to ask the questions that elicit a response that lets the people of America understand what would this woman do if she were leading the country,” said Thomas Oppel, a political strategist from New Hampshire and president of All Points Communication.
“And he needs to ask questions that find out if she's up to that task,” Oppel said. “And if he doesn't, he's failed terribly and failed the country, too, because he's the only one, for a time anyway, who is able to get at that.”
The McCain campaign unquestionably was careful to pick the best venue for Palin's first interview, said Charles Bierbauer, who covered five presidential campaigns for CNN.
“Of course they go shopping,” said Bierbauer, now dean of the College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina. “They ask themselves, ‘Where do we get the best hearing for our message?'”
Sometimes that venue is the toughest one available, he said, pointing to the decision by Bill and Hillary Clinton to address philandering issues on CBS's “60 Minutes” with Steve Croft in 1992.
Getting Palin's first interview is a coup for ABC, one that all the networks would covet, Bierbauer said.
“Nobody's clamoring for a Joe Biden interview, are they?” he said. “But we know Joe Biden. So she's the hot story.”
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