The media's Sarah Palin problem -- and ours
Dave Weigel writes the smartest thing I've read about the Sarah Palin phenomenon in some time.
The problem is that Palin has put the political press in a submissive position, one in which the only information it prints about her comes from prepared statements or from Q&As with friendly interviewers. This isn’t something most politicians get away with, or would be allowed to get away with. But Palin has leveraged her celebrity — her ability to get ratings, the ardor of her fans and the bitterness of her critics — to win a truly unique relationship with the press. She is allowed to shape the public debate without actually engaging in it.
Let’s take the example of her “feud” with Al Gore. Palin’s name appeared on a Dec. 9 op-ed in The Washington Post, calling on President Obama to boycott the Copenhagen climate talks because of the “fraudulent scientific practices” of climate scientists. The next day, Andrea Mitchell interviewed Al Gore, author of a new book on scientific responses to climate change, and her very first question was about … Palin’s op-ed. When Gore answered with a blanket response to “global warming deniers,” Mitchell responded by quoting Palin again: “One of the things that she has written recently on Facebook is that this is doomsday scare tactics pushed by an environmental priesthood that makes the public feel like owning an SUV is a sin against the planet.” Gore parried again, and moved on.
Palin responded to this with, yes, another Facebook post, one that was dutifully read aloud and reprinted. “He’s wrong in calling me a ‘denier,” she wrote, even though Gore had rather adroitly shifted the question from Palin — whom reporters care about — to the rather large population of “global warming deniers,” whom he cares about.
In this Politico write-up of the “feud,” Andy Barr posted most of Palin’s response without any kind of fact-check about her claims. That’s not Barr’s fault. The problem is with how Palin chose to engage the media. While Gore submitted to an interview, on camera, Palin lent her name to a Facebook post. I say “lent her name” because there is really no way of telling if Palin wrote the post — that’s probably the biggest problem with the way Palin is using the media here, and the reason I choose not to engage with this stuff.
Read the whole thing. The Palin phenomenon is really based on exploiting a couple of vulnerabilities in the way the media does its job. For one thing, newspapers work very hard to report things that are true, but they are less concerned with whether the overall impression from their reporting is a true impression. Shark attacks, for instance, happen very rarely. But if you report excitedly on every shark attack that happens, people will think they happen quite a bit. You haven't told anyone any lies, but your stories aren't leaving your readers with a true impression of the world.
Similarly, it's true that Sarah Palin said there are "death panels" in the bill, but people reading about the controversy over the death panels would not have had a true impression of the bill's contents, problems and virtues. After all, if you can actually have an argument over the existence of "death panels," this must be a pretty bad bill.
One of the jobs the media does is deciding what true things count as news and what true things do not count as news. That should be easy, but since newspapers need to sell copies and cable programs need to secure viewers, there's a tension with the fact that some news is boring, while some not-news is really interesting. Palin sneaks onto the front page because she seems to square that circle: Her utterances seem like news (former vice presidential candidate and 2012 hopeful Sarah Palin says ...) but actually aren't. The continuing irony of all this is that for all the enmity between Palin and the press, no one has a closer and more mutually beneficial relationship than Palin has with the media, and no equivalently powerless political figure receives anything near the free coverage that the media lavishes on her.
Photo credit: Jerome A. Pollos/Associated Press.