[x NY Fishwrap Magazine]
The Tom And Jerry Problem
By Bill Keller
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If the 2012 election were held in the newsrooms of America and pitted Sarah Palin against Barack Obama, I doubt Palin would get 10 percent of the vote. However tempting the newsworthy havoc of a Palin presidency, I’m pretty sure most journalists would recoil in horror from the idea.
That is not — or not entirely — for the reasons Palin thinks: that journalists are liberal elitists, that they find the Tea Party fringe ridiculous or alarming or that they are infatuated with the cerebral black liberal in the White House. There’s a grain of truth and a loaf of myth in each of those. But I think it’s more visceral than that. It has to do with a profound and mutual lack of respect that is not quite like any I recall between a candidate (or pretend candidate) and the press.
The evidence of Palin’s scorn for what she calls the lamestream media is abundant, but I was struck by the gratuitous quality of one remark she tossed off during that Rolling Thunder rally in Washington the Sunday before Memorial Day. When an NPR reporter asked what had brought her to the event, she replied, “It is our vets who we owe our freedom — not the politician, not the reporter — it is our vets, so that’s why we’re here.”
There is, I suppose, a gracious way to translate her comments. She might have meant to convey something along the lines of: “I’m sincerely humbled by the sacrifice our veterans have made to defend the freedoms I enjoy in my capacity as a politician and Fox News media pundit.” But I think we all know she meant nothing of the kind.
I’ll let the politicians stick up for themselves; I do hope they’ll ask if her contempt applies to the politicians who wrote that Constitution our worthy veterans swore to defend.
The volley at reporters, though, lands in my court.
There is, to be sure, a substantial constituency for press-bashing. And I acknowledge that the press can be annoying, simplistic, predictable, herdlike, insatiable, imperious, sloppy and mean. I’ve long argued that every budding journalist should have the chastening experience of being written about.
But I do not think Palin intended her remark simply as a cheap applause line; after all, at that moment she was not pandering from a Tea Party stage but speaking to an audience of NPR listeners, who I’m pretty sure have a less malign view of the press. No, her remark was automatic, like acid reflux.
Palin’s disdain goes beyond the bitterness of a public figure who has been burned by the press. Plenty of others have endured the pain of mainstream-media excoriation but have remained civil and responsive. What these politicians have in common, though, is enough confidence in the strength of their ideas to imagine that they can make a case through the press, if not actually to the press. Perhaps one key to Palin’s dislike of the news media is a streak of intellectual insecurity, or a trace of impostor syndrome. Her best defense against being found shallow is a strong offense.
Another factor, I think, is that the humiliations she has endured in the media have been unusually invasive — including, at the lowest point, speculation that Palin’s youngest son, Trig, was actually born to her daughter, Bristol, and borrowed as a campaign prop. That would bring out the grizzly in any mama.
A few months ago I was startled to hear my 13-year-old daughter, who has a Hillary Clinton campaign sticker on her bedroom door, say she thought Palin was “cool.” I wondered if this was just a burst of teenage contrarianism. It turned out Molly’s sympathy had nothing to do with politics or feminism. It was simply that in watching “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” on TLC, my empathetic daughter had perceived a woman happily, spiritually at home. She suspected the Palin family would be miserable in the shark tank of national politics.
I thought of my daughter’s remark as I followed coverage of Palin’s bizarre noncampaign campaign bus tour, featuring Greta van Susteren as a sidekick in a sort of Sisterhood of the Traveling Palins. Palin seemed to enjoy messing with the heads of the media pack, creating a spectacle and then taunting them for treating it as a spectacle, but on the whole it felt like an excruciating, fish-out-of-water sequel to her earlier reality show.
The most surreal moment in this odd cavalcade was 10-year-old Piper Palin scolding a Time magazine photographer, “Thanks for ruining our vacation.” That was the sound of a kid lashing out at her mom’s new live-in boyfriend.
This use-hate relationship, in which Palin manipulates us and we torture her, reminds me a little of Princess Diana, whose relationship with the press Tina Brown described as “a cycle of dependency and combat.” Palin can’t ignore us. Sure, she can bypass the press pack and directly commune with her vast Twitter and Facebook following. But if she does have ambitions for higher office, she needs to convince more than the faithful that she’s worthy of the job, and making her case through the lamestream media — print, broadcast and digital — is still the most effective way to do that.
The press, I think, returns her antipathy in part because she makes us feel ridiculous. We can’t ignore her, either. She is the second-highest-polling choice among Republicans, she has harnessed social media and if she doesn’t run she will at least bring her roistering talents to the party. But we suspect she is leading us on a Trump-style chase.
At the core of the media antipathy, though, is something more fundamental. The fact is, reporters want as badly as anyone else to see the country led by someone who inspires confidence. But watching Palin answer a question is like watching a runaway train struggling to stay on the rails, and fact-checking her is like fishing with dynamite. When she is caught getting something wrong — most recently turning Paul Revere’s ride into a gun rights crusade — she tends to dig in deeper. (Her attitude that the truth is what she says it is appears to be contagious. In the case of the midnight ride, Palin fans tried to rewrite history on Wikipedia to conform to her version.) I think a lot of journalists, regardless of their politics, find her confounding and a little frightening. Evidently, so do most Americans; only 21 percent of voters have a favorable impression of her in the latest CBS poll.
There is a long list of politicians, just within my lifetime, whose bellicose relations with the press anticipated Palin’s in some particulars. Barry Goldwater was similarly regarded as a creature of the fringe. Nixon was similarly embittered. Howard Dean was similarly hailed as the master of Web-centric politics.
Reagan is the antecedent Palin would prefer. Like her, he was mocked for misremembering; like her, he treated the press as a comic foil and used the dominant medium of his day — broadcasting — to go directly to “the people.”
Reagan, though, had a depth of experience, an underestimated grasp of issues, a gift for expedient compromise, a seasoned and loyal team and a good-natured charm that all translated into public trust.
Palin, on the other hand, just has our attention. Ω
[Bill Keller will step down as executive editor of The New York Times in September 2011 when he will be succeeded by one of his deputies, Jill Abramson. Keller returns to his first love as a a full-time writer for the paper. The California-born Keller received a BA from Pomona College 1970.]
Copyright © 2011 The New York Times Company
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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at sapper.blogspot.com. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.
Copyright © 2011 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves