Friday :: Nov 20, 2009 A Lesson In How NOT To Cover Sarah Palin

by Turkana

The re-emergence of Sarah Palin has provided a stark and depressing message about the way our media cover politics. Because Sarah Palin is a politician, yet she is treated as a pop culture celebrity. And then some in the media defend her, by saying it's unfair that she is treated as a pop culture celebrity. Arguments about whether or not she is responsible for the coverage are irrelevant, because no matter how she presents herself and behaves, it's still up to the media to decide how they react to her presentation and behavior. If she sells herself the way most celebrities sell themselves, the media ought to make that their focus: that whatever she is, she is not someone who focuses on what should be a politician's focus. Instead, too many supposedly serious media outlets also fail to focus on what should be a politician's focus.

I've subscribed to since it became a subscription website. Salon publishes some of the best political commentary, anywhere. Its reporters often prove themselves among the best, anywhere. Its coverage of Bush administration crimes, the Walter Reed scandals, and the still emerging Arlington National Cemetery scandal have been invaluable. So, it is painful to read Salon's puerile coverage of the re-emergence of Sarah Palin. Salon's coverage is a lesson in how not to cover Sarah Palin.

First, Sandra Tsing-Loh writes a mind-numbingly inane puff piece, that starts off with an attempt at folksy cutesy humor, before taking a weak stab at exposition:

If I am giving Palin's book a thumbs up, it is qualified by the fact that, let's face it, the genre of the female political autobiography is itself in its infancy. It's like some 53rd state, housing at this moment in time only a handful of crude, wooden, lean-to outposts. These are times when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright can do a book tour based on her pins and brooches, about which "Morning Edition's" Susan Stamberg will huskily midwife a most empathic and unironic discussion. These are times when Nancy Pelosi comes out with a memoir slender as a Hallmark card, a memoir no living person but me has apparently read, vaguely titled "Know Your Power: A Message to America's Daughters," which her publishers carefully deemed ("How shall we describe this?") a "keepsake." Then again, one understands why female political books tend toward focus group-approved mottos and tasteful brooches -- women have not been in politics for very long and, even more than the men in this rabid age, if they dare utter an opinion or take a stand, they and, weirdly, also their children get media-raped and shredded.


So, because there haven't been a lot of women on the national political stage, that means we're to grade this woman's book on a curve? And comparing Palin to Albright and Pelosi gets to the nub of what's wrong with Tsing-Loh's entire approach. Because even if a television foof did in an interview with Albright what television foofs are supposed to do, and even if few read Pelosi's book, the fundamental difference between them and Palin is that they can talk circles around most people, when it comes to matters of public policy, while Palin's attempts to discuss public policy inevitably make one feel one has been spinning in circles. Albright and Pelosi are people of great substance and intellect. They work at it. They value intelligence and knowledge. They might occasionally play the media game, but they are most at home when they are discussing and working in the complexities of policy. One cannot control the public's reaction, however much one may try. But one can control what one has to present to the public. Albright and Pelosi present depth and complexity. Palin does not.

So what's refreshing is that Palin seems unafraid to express herself, warts and all -- informal campaign motto: "Heels on! Gloves off!" -- and the book just goes where it goes.

It's refreshing for a national politician to ramble openly? The substance of that rambling doesn't matter? Is there any celebrity in any genre of superficial pop culture that isn't capable of rambling openly about whatever they want to ramble about?

Tsing-Low then proceeds to ramble into anecdotes from the book that have nothing to do with anything. Personal anecdotes. Cutesy folk tales. Tsing-Loh even attempts to play snarkily folksy in her descriptions. As if this is all about having a good time. As if Palin's re-emergence on the national stage is no different than that of any celebrity attempting a come-back. Tsing-Loh buys into the Alaska myth, and buys into the rugged individualist myth, in a simplistic manner reminiscent of the corporate media's buying into the myth that a man who has never been seen riding a horse was a rancher. Which is doubly ridiculous, given that even if these myths were true, they should be irrelevant to what qualifies one to be a national political figure. By the end of the review, one has gleaned nothing other than that Tsing-Loh wants to play along. One has learned nothing about the subject of the review, and plenty about the reviewer.

The other Salon article is by Amanda Fortini:

Say what you want about Palin or her positions (and, in the past, I have), it takes scrappiness and guts to strike back at the old-boys' network that anointed you by publishing a book, so soon after the campaign, detailing your frustrations and disillusionments. We might want to take a long breath before discounting her. As Gwen Ifill recently said on "This Week": “You can not underestimate the degree that women will be drawn to her story.” We don’t hear many real-life fairy-tales of American female success, which makes the few that exist intrinsically compelling.

We probably don't hear many real-life fairy-tales of American female success because there are no real-life fairy-tales. There's no Great Pumpkin. There's no Santa Claus. I hope I'm not ruining anyone's day! We hear plenty of real-life stories of real American female success, because there are so many successful American women, involving so many real definitions of success. Palin has become wealthy and famous primarily because she is relentlessly greedy and selfish. In that, she's a good Republican, with standard Republican values. She has no apparent talent other than that of self-promotion. She hasn't ever worked hard at anything substantive, and it is, in fact, wealthy and famous because the old-boys' network pettily saw in her an opportunity to capitalize on what they saw as a simplicity in the motivation of female voters. The calculation was as condescending as is possible: a) Hillary Clinton is a woman, Palin is a woman, b) Hillary Clinton's supporters supported her because she is a woman, and they therefore will switch to supporting Palin, because Palin is a woman. That cynical and misogynistic political calculation is the only reason most people ever heard of Sarah Palin.

There is nothing at all scrappy or gutsy about Palin's attempting to cash in on her moment in the public spotlight. Joe the Plumber attempted the same. That McCain's team treated Palin so disrespectfully speaks to their own motives and values. Palin took advantage of those motives and values to further her own. Perhaps she is stupid enough to believe her own hype. Certainly, she is not smart enough to realize she is not smart. Palin was an embarrassment on the national stage. More than a year after she was foisted in front of us by the pathetic John McCain, some 60% of the public still sees her as unqualified to be president. The public is not that stupid. The public recognizes such obvious stupid. And for all the legitimate criticism of the sexism involved in some of the criticism of Palin, the bottom line is that people reject her as a serious person primarily because she is not a serious person. It has nothing to do with her looks or her family, subjects about which I do not write. It has to do with the fact that she has never stuck with a job, has never accomplished anything substantive other than self-promotion, has a long record of quitting schools and jobs before she has finished that with which she was tasked, and proved herself astonishingly ignorant on matters of public policy.

If one looks back on her public polling, people were, initially, inclined to like Palin. The more they saw of her, the less they liked. That wasn't because they were mean or sexist, or because the McCain campaign or the media mistreated her. That was because Palin does not belong on the national political stage.

As the vice-presidential candidate, she showed, despite her postgame spin, little real knowledge of matters non-Alaskan, and at least for the span of the campaign, she didn’t seem bent on acquiring much more. Her current desire for visibility, the motives for which remain unclear, suits our age of reality television, this moment in American life when fame for fame’s sake is the ultimate goal. One might argue that Palin’s ambition, which some have branded simple narcissism, allowed her to forget her own unreadiness for the presidency and accept the nomination in the first place.

That's the best part of the article. Because it's valid. But Fortini then veers off into trivial garbage:

It wasn’t only that she looked older, the creases around her mouth having deepened, it was also that, no longer under the shadow of McCain and his handlers, she came off as natural, confident, good-humored and even, at times, articulate. Though her tendency to ramble persisted, she wasn’t as awkward and garbled as in the past. She was also disarmingly honest.

She looks older, and is more comfortable in the spotlight? So? Fortini's examples of Palin's new maturity in the spotlight all have to do with personal matters and personal reactions. Such examples could pertain to any generic celebrity who took a moment to adjust to fame. Which many do. But we're talking about a national political figure, aren't we? Isn't the standard supposed to be just a tad higher? Didn't we all scoff at Bush for many of the reasons we scoff at Palin- until the media muddled the public perception of who and what Bush was, playing a decisive role in allowing him to become president, and then to abuse that office in pretty much every possible way?

Fortini then goes on to discuss Palin's public act, again appearing to make valid points, before again descending into the trivial.

She was given about seven seconds to learn her role and then, after eight seconds, patronized and mocked. The reasons she performed so poorly are the very reasons her fan base loves her. If, over the next three years, her performance improves as much as it appears to have in just the last year, the conventional rap about her rustic idiocy may come off as mean-spirited and archaic.

Once again: the improvement in her performance, as described by Fortini, is all on the surface. It's all about Palin's ability to negotiate the superficialities of our superficial media. Palin still has yet to demonstrate any understanding of policy. When talking actual politics, Palin still is all about stereotypes and talking points. She is as ridiciulous as was Bush. Which remains the most apt political comparison. Palin may not have been born into a political machine, but she now is part of one. They package her and protect her, and even successfully foist her off on the corporate media as someone worthy of public attention. And the corporate media play along, still praising or criticizing Palin for reasons that are all about theater, and that should be irrelevant when analyzing politicians. Fortini buys into that, in every way. She mentions the extremism of Palin's political views, but only in passing; and she doesn't at all mention that Palin still has yet to prove herself capable of engaging in a thoughtful conversation on any substantive political issue. Palin's entire career has proved that she has neither the interest nor the focus to develop such a capability. Imagining her in a political debate with someone as smart and knowledgeable as President Obama is almost painful. Nothing about the new Palin is any different from the Palin who so dramatically imploded, every time she was forced into substantive conversations.

We expect the corporate media to both praise and criticize Palin for the most superficial reasons. We expect better from the alternative media. Salon's Joan Walsh already offered the type of insightful commentary we expect from Joan Walsh. Why Salon then chose to follow that with two pieces of such embarrassing shallowness is anyone's guess. Salon often is a superb website, and often defines what makes alternative media so important; but with their coverage of Palin, they are giving us much too much of more of the same.

Turkana :: 11:48 AM :: Comments (11) :: Digg It!