Yes, Sarah, There is a Media Conspiracy
Sarah Palin talked on the campaign trail about trying to get around the elite media filter, but this week she’s pushed her way straight through it.
And the media – liberal and conservative, bloggers and network anchors – have responded by dedicating magazine covers, air time and online real estate to everything related to the book-promoting, media-bashing former governor of Alaska. No matter where Palin goes, the media follow – Andrea Mitchell even hosted her MSNBC show Wednesday from the Barnes & Noble in Grand Rapids, Mich., where Palin’s scheduled to sign books.
Just to get this out of the way, since the teabaggers have apparently re-discovered my site and in response to the previous Palin post have begun bombarding me with letters of the “Yeah, but Obama…” genus:
Is the media out to get Sarah Palin? It seems like most of the letters I get are insisting that I admit it. “Surely you can’t deny,” writes one woman from Florida, “that no political figure in American history has had to put up with what Sarah Palin has had to put up with from the mainstream media.”
Now, this is the part of this red-blue schtick where I’m supposed to strike back without thinking and re-hash the history of, say, the Monica Lewinsky scandal in rebuttal and then, as the argument progresses, do the whole “I know you are but what am I?” thing until the end of time. I’ve decided from now on that I’m just not going to go there with any of this culture-war bullshit. It’s exhausting. I mean, hell, if you want to argue over who’s more justified in wallowing in media victimhood, that’s not a fight I mind losing. Mazel tov!
I would, however, like to point out a few things, none of which really involve taking sides in this particular cat-fight. In no particular order:
1) The political media has always taken it upon itself to make decisions about who is and who is not qualified to be taken seriously as candidates for higher office. Without even talking about whether they do this more or less to Republicans or Democrats, I can testify that I witnessed this phenomenon over and over again in the primary battles within the Democratic Party. It has always been true that the press corps has drawn upon internalized professional biases, high-school-style groupthink and the urging of insider wonks to separate candidates into “serious” and “unserious” groups before the shots even start to be fired.
At the outset of the 2004 campaign, for instance, the herd knew without being told that Kerry and Lieberman got the first paragraphs in the debate wrap-ups and Howard Dean, Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich got the last paragraphs. The corps fought against Dean’s unexpectedly strong showing all the way through the early primaries and it was no surprise to anyone when they pile-drove him into total insanity before Iowa. The point I’m trying to make is that the media has a long and storied history of just taking the gloves off and whaling on a dude until he screams uncle (in Dean’s case, almost literally) when they make up their mind about someone, and this phenomenon is not restricted to fights between Democrats and Republicans.
2) When that does happen, when the press corps decides to abandon all restraint and go for the head shot, it usually tells us a lot more about the reporters’ bosses and what they’re thinking than it does about the reporters themselves. Your average political reporter is a spineless dweeb who went to all the best schools and made it to that privileged seat inside the campaign-trail ropeline by being keenly sensitive to the editorial wishes of his social and professional superiors.
When their bosses were for the war, they were for the war, and they battered any candidate who was “weak on foreign policy.” When the political winds shifted four years later and the consensus inside the Beltway suddenly was that Iraq had been a hideous mistake, the campaign-trail reporters mysteriously started sounding like Sixties peaceniks on the plane and they hammered Hillary for refusing to admit her error on the Iraq vote (none of these pundits had to admit their mistake on the same question, but whatever), clearing the way for Obama.
The tone for all this behavior is always set somewhere way up the corporate totem pole, and it always reflects some dreary combination of simple business considerations (i.e. what’s the best story and sells the most ads) and internalized political calculus (i.e. who is a “legitimate” candidate and who is an “insurgent” or a “second-tier” hopeful). It’s not that the reporters are making this judgment themselves, it’s that they have to listen to what the apparatus Up There is saying all day long — not just their bosses but the think-tank talking heads they interview for comments, the party insiders who buy them beers at night, the pollsters and so on.
And when all these people start getting in their ears about this or that guy doesn’t have “winnability,” or doesn’t have enough money to run, or has negatives that are insurmountable, all that thinking inevitably bleeds into the coverage. It’s not that the reporters are “biased.” They just don’t have the stones, for the most part, to ignore all the verbal and non-verbal cues they get from authority figures about who is “legitimate” and who isn’t.
Once the signal comes down that this or that politician doesn’t have the backing of anyone who matters, that’s when the knives really come out. When a politician has powerful allies and powerful friends, you won’t see reporters brazenly kicking him in the crotch the way they did to Dean and they’re doing now to Sarah Palin. The only time they do this is when they know there won’t be consequences, meaning when the politician’s only supporters are non-entities (read: voters), as in the case of Ron Paul or Kucinich. Like America in general, the press corps never attacks any enemy that can fight back. To illustrate the point via haiku:
Journos are pussies
Only attack when it’s safe
Lay off entrenched pols
3) So Sarah Palin is now in that category of politician whom reporters feel safe in attacking.
Some of this is definitely her own fault — in addition to the dynamic described above, there’s an additional complicating converse that says that when a politician doesn’t kiss the press’s ass all day long, he or she can expect to get reamed in print until the next ice age. And Sarah Palin not only doesn’t kiss the press’s ass, she treats them like dogshit, openly (the 2008 campaign was a pitched battle after the infamous U.N. standoff, in which Palin’s handlers tried to masking-tape the reporters’ mouths by insisting on photo-only coverage of events). Hillary’s campaign had the same problem; particularly after Iowa, her press handlers so openly treated the trail reporters like a swarm of venomous insects that I used to pass the time by daydreaming them ducking back into the press area wearing airtight Ebola-handling spacesuits a la Outbreak or The Hot Zone. Once the politician-reporter relationship reaches that level, that candidacy is going to be in serious trouble.
Obama’s press people, meanwhile, behaved like a team of well-trained Starbuck’s baristas: quiet, accomodating, nonconfrontational. Then again, the reporters mostly all worshipped their boss, so they didn’t have any reason to behave otherwise. That part of the media-conspiracy narrative is definitely true. I remember one particular trip when Obama came back to our part of the plane wearing jeans and a white button-down shirt and there was audible chirping from several female reporters. The Obama plane in the press section was also plastered all over with pictures high-school yearbook style, and getting photographed with Obama and then getting the photo tacked up on the wall of the plane was like a rite of passage for that crew. Needless to say nothing like that went on in the Hillary press corps, or more especially in the McCain plane, where the more likely back-of-the-plane recreation was a reporter musing out loud about the benefits of hanging himself over continuing even one more minute on that assignment.
That said, even back at the very beginning of the campaign, before the signal came down that it was okay to start giving Obama big sloppy blowjobs on the air, when reporters were all slamming the one-term Illinois Senator for being a “lightweight” prone to “rookie mistakes” (those among us whose version of recent history imagines Obama being handed the 2008 election by the campaign press seem always to forget that part, but go back and look — the “Hillary is the presumptive frontrunner” period lasted a solid nine or ten months), Obama’s press handlers observed the prime directive. They did not interfere with the reporters’ civilization. There was a “let the chips fall where they may” attitude that helped out a lot when the Beltway consensus finally shifted and the money started pouring in behind the candidate; there was no bad blood to overcome when the press had to change its mind again and embrace an “Obama is now the presumptive frontrunner/We are now at war with Oceania” posture.
Palin never had anything like that kind of attitude toward the press, although in fairness the bullets were flying at her from the moment she entered the campaign. It doesn’t matter; the point is that she’s getting it from all angles now and that wouldn’t be happening if she still had any friends in high places.
The press corps that is bashing her skull in right now is the same one that hyped that WMD horseshit for like four solid years and pom-pommed America to war with Iraq over the screeching objections of the entire planet. It’s the same press corps that rolled out the red carpet for someone very nearly as abjectly stupid as Sarah Palin to win not one but two terms in the White House. If there was any kind of consensus support for Palin inside the beltway, the criticism of her, bet on it, would be almost totally confined to chortling east coast smartasses like me and Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Sullivan.
What the people who are flipping out about the treatment of Palin should be asking themselves is what it means when it’s not just jerks like us but everybody piling on against Palin. For those of you who can’t connect the dots, I’ll tell you what it means. It means she’s been cut loose. It means that all five of the families have given the okay to this hit job, including even the mainstream Republican leaders. You teabaggers are in the process of being marginalized by your own ostensible party leaders in exactly the same way the anti-war crowd was abandoned by the Democratic party elders in the earlier part of this decade. Like the antiwar left, you have been deemed a threat to your own party’s “winnability.”
And do you know what that means? That means that just as the antiwar crowd spent years being painted by the national press as weepy, unpatriotic pussies whose enthusiastic support is toxic to any serious presidential aspirant, so too will all of you afternoon-radio ignoramuses who seem bent on spending the next three years kicking and screaming your way up the eternal asshole of white resentment now find yourself and your political champions painted as knee-jerk loonies whose rabid irrationality is undeserving of the political center. And yes, that’s me saying that, but I’ve always been saying that, not just about Palin but about George Bush and all your other moron-heroes.
What’s different now is who else is saying it. You had these people eating out of the palms of your hands (remember what it was like in the Dixie Chicks days?). Now they’re all drawing horns and Groucho mustaches on your heroes, and rapidly transitioning you from your previous political kingmaking role in the real world to a new role as a giant captive entertainment demographic that exists solely to be manipulated for ratings and ad revenue. What you should be asking yourself is why this is happening to you. Even I don’t know the answer to that question, but honestly, I don’t really care. All I know is that I find it extremely funny.
Anyway, that’s probably enough on the Palin subject for the next few years, fun as she is to talk about. And since I just got word that Jamie Dimon is being floated to replace Tim Geithner, it seems we’ll all have enough real problems to worry about in the meantime.