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Think the media is unfair to Joe Miller? You're right

Craig Medred

Alaska U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller has in recent weeks been treated unfairly by that powerful collective known as "the media." There can be no argument about this. Almost every day it seems there is some new revelation from somewhere about some federal program from which the Yale-educated attorney or his wife, Kathleen, took a handout. The cumulative affect has been to make them appear grifters.

The reality is more complex. Yes, the Millers accepted government assistance, but who in America hasn't? Who in Alaska, especially, hasn't? There are damn few eligible Alaskans who don't apply for and accept a Permanent Fund Dividend, which is, in reality, just a government handout. Nobody does anything to earn it. Sorry, but just living here doesn't count. Some people actually like living here. Many reading this have probably also, at some point in their life, claimed unemployment, which isn't really all that much of a government handout. It's more of an insurance program. You pay into it, and your employer pays into it. The result is a fund that is supposed to help tide you through a period without a job and help your employer feel less guilty if he, or she, has to lay you off.

There are still a lot of small businesspeople in this country who feel guilty about layoffs even if many of the fat drones who form the backbone of corporate management in America seem to lack the gene for empathy or have seen it trumped by their own lust for the big house, the fancy car, and the good life.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. It is capitalism at work, and capitalism -- with its good and its bad -- has proven the most democratic economic system in the world. That is why most Americans, even most of those who rail against the flaws of capitalism, are practicing capitalists. But capitalism does have its flaws. The economic freedom of the system allowed the formation of the housing and finance bubble that almost took the economy down when it burst.

Now, we are in the deep doo-doo, and we are not going to be able to buy our way out. Miller -- a self-proclaimed fiscal conservative -- is right about that. America isn't exactly broke as he sometimes claims. The country isn't going "bankrupt,'' as he has said. The country can always print more money. But printing money is a dangerous proposition because it fuels massive inflation -- see Germany, 1930s. The Germans printed money to try to pull their economy out of the depression. The result was that the average German soon needed pockets full of Reichsmarks to buy a candy bar, which was bad.

Worse was the economic chaos that led to the rise of National Socialist German Workers Party and its leader Adolph Hitler. Everyone knows the rest of that story. Miller is, of course, no Hitler; nor is his booster, onetime Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin; nor is sitting President Barack Obama, who some of Palin's supporters sometimes try to link to the German dictator. At root, all three appear to share basic American beliefs in life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness no matter how much they might argue about them. Ignore that; their differences are really matters of degree, not worlds of separation.

All of which brings this back to Joe Miller. He has friends out there who think he is an all-around good guy. He has supporters who feel much the same. And a lot of both appear deeply upset that media has been unfair to him in painting, of late, this cardboard cutout of a man with his hand out.

And they are right. It is unfair.

So what?

Life is unfair. Any of us could contract a terminal illness tomorrow and be dead in a month, or try to cross the street today only to be struck and killed by a car. Life is that unfair. To claim that a candidate running for one of the most important political offices in the state is being treated unfairly because his warts are being exposed is just plain silly.


This is how democracy is supposed to work. Unfairness is part of the system. Candidates for office in this country get vetted in the public square. At least hopefully they do.

It can be a brutal process. It can be an unfair process. And in Miller's case, unfortunately, it is looking especially so for a number of reasons, all of which need to be understood.

Reason Number 1: Life in the spotlight.

Miller got through the Republican primary, in which he beat incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski, with very little examination. Nobody expected him to win, so the media paid him little attention. He was a cardboard cutout then, too, but a different one -- Gulf War veteran, fiscal conservative, a man to be admired for his military service but not to be taken too seriously as a political contender given his record. He'd been in one election and lost. He didn't have all that much money. He was judged to be in the fight with Murkowski only because some cranky Interior Republicans (Miller is from Fairbanks) thought somebody should be in the fight against the powerful Murkowski, who sometimes shows hints of leaning toward the left, especially on social issues.

Still, she was the Apollo Creed in the Alaska GOP primary fight. Miller was the Rocky Balboa; he got the Rocky treatment. He wasn't taken seriously, and as a result nobody did much digging into his background to see if he had been walking his talk in his 16 short years in Alaska. Now he is the champion; they are digging; and everything has changed.

Reason Number 2: Sarah Palin.

Palin was poorly vetted on her run to governor in 2006. She ran on a platform of clean and transparent government, and the Alaska media -- having just been witness to FBI prosecutions of corruption in the state capital in the -- liked what it heard.

Reporters did little checking to see what kind of job Palin did as mayor of Wasilla. They spent little time examining her qualifications to serve as the state's chief executive. They basically did little reporting at all. The Anchorage newspaper tagged her the "Joan of Arc of Alaska politics" and that was that -- Joan of Arc being a peasant girl from France who cited the powers of divine guidance as she rose to lead the French army to important victories in the Hundred Year's War. Joan of Arc became a French national heroine of France and a Catholic saint. (She also got burned at the stake.)

Palin became a saint to some, too, but a devil to others after her term as governor began to disintegrate amid accusations she tried to get her brother-in-law fired from his job as an Alaska State Trooper, an abuse of power. And then came the run for vice president that exposed her to the digging of reporters from Outside. They discovered the governor was living at home in Wasilla and collecting per diem checks from the state. Her staff countered that this was saving the state money because Palin wasn't staying in hotels and eating out in Anchorage when away from the state capital. They might have been right, but the whole affair still proved an embarrassment for the Alaska media, which had missed "that there whole per diem thing," as Palin -- a onetime sports reporter -- might have put it.

Miller now faces a media trying to make sure it misses nothing.

Reason Number 3: Compression.

All of Miller's dirty laundry has been pulled out and dumped pretty much in one fell swoop. Murkowski, who is back in the race for the Senate seat as a write-in candidate in the general election, has seen her share of dirty laundry exposed, too, but in her case this has happened over a much longer time frame.

She's been beat up because her daddy appointed her to the Senate seat in the first place, but that was years ago. She's been whipped now and again because of a sweetheart land deal with family friend and Alaska political player Bob Penney; she only reluctantly backed out of a deal he offered on some land along the fabled, salmon-rich Kenai River. But that was exposed in the summer of 2007. It got lots of ink and airtime in the weeks and months followed. It is now more history than news because, as with her appointment by her father, it is old.

To keep dredging up the old stuff as if it were new goes beyond simply unfair into the realm of advocacy. Fine if you're a Miller supporter. Not so fine if you're a legitimate journalist operating within some rules of fairness no matter how unfair life might be. By the rules of journalism, digging up what is unknown and putting it out there is fair, no matter how unfair that might be, while revisiting what is well-known again and again is unfair.


Maybe those rules are unfair themselves, but them's the rules. Miller, unfortunately, left a lot to be dug up:

A signed, sworn statement that he was an Alaska resident when he wasn't; a claim he was indigent to get a $5 resident hunting and fishing license at the same time he was spending big bucks to add an addition onto his Anchorage home; the collection of federal farm subsidies; the enrollment of his wife and family in government funded programs at a time when he could have paid for their child and health care himself; the solicitation of a government loan to promote the development of Alaska farming so he could buy 1,000 acres of land to hold as a private retreat near Delta Junction with no effort ever made to further the goal of moving farming forward in Alaska, to catalog just part of what has come out.

These things all became "news.'' Why? Because they are "new.'' Nobody knew them before, and thus the media has a responsibility -- even those reporters who might personally like Miller -- to get them out there. They are not "irrelevant'' as Miller has tried to claim. They are part of the portrait of who Miller is.

That so many of these newly discovered actions and behaviors clash with the candidate's claim to be a "common-sense conservative'' only adds fuel to the fires burning around him. Miller might have been well advised to form a laundry list of everything he might have done wrong as a "common-sense conservative" to hand to reporters when he first entered the race, thus making any future discoveries immediately "old" and thus not news. It would have made many of his actions easier to defend.

Likewise he might be in a better position now if he'd just come out early, thrown himself upon the bed of his past deeds, declared himself a poster boy for what is wrong with a handout-heavy system, and announced that he'd undergone a catharsis, seen the light, and realized he must step forward to try to help save the country for fiscal disaster.

He didn't, however, do those things.

Reason Number 4: The feeding frenzy.

Miller is the new fish in the shark tank. Yes, Murkowski and Democratic candidate Scott McAdams from Sitka are in there, too. But Murkowski is a tired, old, already scarred-up fish and McAdams is a little fish, or at least perceived as one (review Reason Number 1 above for more on that).

Miller is the fresh, fat, healthy fish. Reporters, being like sharks at their best and bottom-feeding carp at their worst, are in full-on shark mode, and they all want a bite of the fresh fish. Miller's response has been largely to cower (past actions are irrelevant) or flee (the candidate is not returning phone calls). The first behavior is questionable. The second is just plain foolish. Alaskans know better than any of the citizens of this country why. Think only of this much heard Alaska advice: Never run from a bear! Running is believed to trigger the chase instincts of all creatures with any sort of predatory gene, and reporters -- limp and lamestream as Palin might paint them -- still react to their predatory genes at times. They're chasing Miller now.

It's not fair. It never is. But that's democracy in America, and we all ought to be thankful for it because, in the end, we're all better for it. We might not get the people we like in office after the vote, but at least we get a pretty good idea of who the people are we've put in office.

What is going on at the moment should make one feel a little sorry for Miller. It should make one understand why some people with less than ideal pasts decide not to run for public office, but it should also make everyone proud to be an American. We ought to know -- we NEED to know -- the hearts and minds of the people we elect to office, and the outline of their hearts and minds isn't always in what they say. It is sometimes in what they do.

Actions don't necessarily speak louder than words, but they do speak. And everyone deserves to know what those actions have said before voting for anyone.

It's only fair, no matter how unfair it might be.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.