Young journalists can learn from Sarah Palin's mistakes

Wednesday, November 19, 2008 | 8:38 a.m. CST; updated 11:18 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, May 4, 2010

The call from the network news executive came only a year after I had graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. He had seen my work and liked it.

Would I come to New York to talk about a job?


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It was the dream of every young TV journalist: traveling around the world, covering the big stories. How could anyone turn down such an offer?

The news executive told me to think about it and get back to him the next day for travel arrangements. What’s to think about? For a 25-year-old reporter from a small town in Missouri, it was an exhilarating moment. As I hung up the phone I was excited and flattered that the best in the business had confidence that I could work at the national level. As a young reporter, I was as confident and aggressive as any rookie at the plate. I knew I could hit it out of the park.

But then, ever so slightly, the cautionary voice of my college mentor Dave Dugan echoed in my head: “Know your strengths and weaknesses. …” Dugan had been a CBS correspondent in the 1960s. Dan Rather cited him as taking the future anchor on his first network news story. Dugan’s message to me had always been clear: Have the maturity to coldly assess your abilities the best you can. 

A couple of hours later I was sitting in a quiet place with a blank sheet of paper with a line drawn down the middle. One side was labeled  “strengths," the other, “weaknesses." How would they match up with the skills I would need to do the job? Yes, I could hit the ball, but could I hit the curve and the changeup at the network level?

What was clear was that I didn’t yet have the depth necessary to succeed as a national correspondent. I needed to be a better writer and to write quicker and more concisely. I needed the ability to put national and international issues in a current and historical context so viewers would understand their significance. I needed to understand the broad context of the job and have the maturity to gain the respect of my peers. I also needed to work on my presentation. In short, I wasn’t ready … and that is what I told the network executive in a phone call the following day.

My decision to hold back was the best professional decision I ever made. It eventually propelled me forward. Four years later, after gaining proper experience, I moved to the Washington bureau of CBS News.

It all came back to me as I watched the election play out on the national stage. I could only imagine the exhilaration Gov. Sarah Palin felt when Sen. John McCain asked her to be his vice presidential running mate. What an opportunity! She was confident and aggressive. She was flattered that such a veteran of the politics of Washington believed she could do the job. She knew she could hit it out of the park.

But did she have a clear understanding of what skills would be needed to succeed in the job? Did she sit down with that blank page (and with those who might be brutally honest with her) and coldly assess her strengths and weaknesses?

Obviously not.

She was a phenom for a few weeks. But then came that fast ball high and tight, followed by the changeup. She flailed away like the rookie she was. Polls show she became a liability to the campaign. Her probability of success was dismal — a fact that many in her own party saw immediately but a fact to which she was blind.

Hers is a lesson for all of us in professional and political life: Know your strengths and weaknesses and assess them as honestly as you can.

It is a lesson I have found that, if ignored, courts disaster.

In retrospect, voters perceived Gov. Palin’s acceptance of the role as running mate as lacking judgment, both on her part and on the part of the person who chose her.

Clearly they should have begun the process with that blank sheet of paper.

John Ferrugia  is a 1975 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and an investigative reporter for KMGH-TV in Denver.

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Robert craig November 19, 2008 | 11:46 a.m.

Mr. Ferrugia, with all due respect, I couldn't disagree with you more. To equate Governor Palin's decision to run as the #2 on the ticket to an inexperienced journalist is flawed.
Using your logic, I could apply the same to Mr. Obama and his run for the top of his ticket. The governor has much more depth than he and was more than qualified to take her place on the ticket.
I find more fault with the party at not get her out there MORE to get her message across along with the media for dragging a perfectly legitimate candidate through the mud.

(Report Comment)
K K November 20, 2008 | 8:41 a.m.

i agree with Robert. I think that your arguement is flawed in many ways.
You call her a "rookie" even though those holding Governor's positions are the most qualified to become president.. what about Obama? is not a "rookie" as well... i mean honestly had anyone ever heard of him, minus his constituents and those that follow politics on a regular basis, prior to the 2008 presidential election....

I do agree that everyone should know their strengths and weaknesses, but i think that your analysis of Gov Palin is a little too harsh. I think that the problem with the GOP's campaign was they had to overcome the hatred towards the current President Bush's administration, and there were many people who didn't recognize that McCain is not Bush and Palin is not Cheney.... which is why Obama won.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr November 20, 2008 | 10:31 a.m.

One thing though that you seem to leave out is that Republicans have over a long period of time have been quite exclusive of the entire country except to cater to the rich while Democrats are more inclusive and cater more to the middle class as well as the poor.

Citizens are tired of feeling excluded and watching huge corporate giants getting huge tax breaks and watching these huge corporations out sourcing their jobs over seas which is a product of the Republican machine and has been for a very long time. That is just not right in the eyes of alot of citizens in this last election.

It is not just Bush or his administration it is though the whole dam Republican party as a whole and their group mentality that has left out the rest of our nation except the rich.

Deny those facts all you want but many many long time Republicans this year voted Democrat and stating the main reason of "Their party had left them out in the cold".

So until the Republican party reforms itself to be more inclusive of the entire nation they will not be the favored governing "Flavor of the month".

Just my opinion on this issue,I'm done.

(Report Comment)
Ayn Rand November 20, 2008 | 11:35 a.m.

Most Dems -- including Obama -- voted for one of the biggest business slush funds in history: the "$700 billion" bailout.

(Report Comment)
Charles Dudley Jr November 20, 2008 | 11:54 a.m.

Only because they were told if they did not drink the kool aide that everything would totally collapse which did not happen.

Paulson should be indicted for perjury and tossed into a Federal Prison for all of that B.S. he pulled on us all.

We were all duped by his obvious lies not just Dems or Repubs or Libertarians but every political party and every citizen of this country.

America took one up the old back side and let Paulson break it off up in us all. It is our own fault. :(

(Report Comment)
Ayn Rand November 20, 2008 | 12:03 p.m.

So the Dems can't think for themselves?

(Report Comment)
John Schultz November 20, 2008 | 1:41 p.m.

This Libertarian would like to disagree, from Bob Barr on down, Libertarians spoke against the bailout. Can't blame this one on us!

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