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The media's Sarah Palin problem -- and ours

PH2009121403152.jpgDave 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.

By Ezra Klein  |  December 23, 2009; 3:30 PM ET
Categories:  Journalism  
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Comments

it's christmas, so I'll bite.

Agree with your concluding sentence, adding that this also makes her exceptionally vulnerable to the perfect deconstructive meme some day.

That's the trouble with superficial celebrity, as opposed to renown earned from substance.

Posted by: rosshunter | December 23, 2009 3:42 PM | Report abuse

the press should stop writing about her.
stories about sarah palin now contribute to pollution in our universe.
the huffington post writes more about sarah palin than almost anything else.
she no longer does anything newsworthy.


the sad thing is that there are so many wonderful people who are making a huge difference in all areas of life and the world, and instead of reading about them, the news is taken up with stories about her.
it further impoverishes our culture.

Posted by: jkaren | December 23, 2009 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Journalists have to learn that under the rules of strategic communication (or as I like to call it, "weaponized information"), lying is not considered wrong. The cigarette PR people are the gold standard. They told lies, which they knew were lies, in full knowledge they were killing people. They were richly rewarded for it.
As long as journalists (full disclosure: I am one) have to start a story by leading with a lie, and then putting "Other information contradicts this" in the second paragraph, the lie will perform its duty. The journalists work will be wasted.

The only way to combat this is to lead the story, "Sen. Joe Blow again repeated the lie that....." The lie is the story, not what he said.
I know this violates our codes of ethics, but that's what politicians and corporate prevaricators are counting on.

These people don't always lie, but their ethical standards do not include telling the truth.

Posted by: hackett1 | December 23, 2009 3:57 PM | Report abuse

In fact, pace Weigel's claim, you can blame the Politico writer who posted Palin's press release without investigating any facts. As long as journalists rely on the "he said/she said" model in order to avoid angry letters from people who hate facts, the public will continue to be poorly served by the media. "Some say the Holocaust never happened; others maintain that six million or more were killed. In sports, is there a controversy brewing in Minnesota over Brett Favre?!?"
-
The consumer walks away knowing that people disagree over the Holocaust, but not knowing the facts about it, and what every historian thinks. "Well," he or David Broder might say to himself, "I guess the truth might be in the middle somewhere. Maybe a few hundred thousand or a million people may have been killed."

Posted by: eelvisberg | December 23, 2009 3:58 PM | Report abuse

Last month I declared Palin to be boring. Anything she says or does is entirely predictable and therefore no longer news.

So now maybe the media can stop "reporting" on her. After all, anyone who still cares about what she has to say can stop by her Facebook page.

Posted by: dasimon | December 23, 2009 4:04 PM | Report abuse

...all pretty much how the decider ran for Pres in 2000.

Posted by: tggault | December 23, 2009 4:22 PM | Report abuse

This article is an excellent example of the "he said/she said" approach that is rendering journalism useless as a means of informing readers: http://www.theonion.com/content/node/39512

"Proponents of Intelligent Falling assert that the different theories used by secular physicists to explain gravity are not internally consistent. Even critics of Intelligent Falling admit that Einstein's ideas about gravity are mathematically irreconcilable with quantum mechanics. This fact, Intelligent Falling proponents say, proves that gravity is a theory in crisis."

Posted by: eelvisberg | December 23, 2009 4:37 PM | Report abuse

no equivalently powerless political figure receives anything near the free coverage that the media lavishes on her.

Not Al Gore? It seems to me that he has gotten far more coverage than Palin, by any measure. And credit him as you will with the interview, he has been very adroit as refusing questions from interviewers and reporters who ask him about the weak spots in the climate science he cites.

Posted by: TigerHawk | December 23, 2009 6:12 PM | Report abuse

The media tries to report the truth!!! Give me a break! The media reports whatever the far left wants them to report. The media never lets the truth and facts stand in the way of a good story to push the "Socialist" agenda! ~70% of the public is against the healthcare proposal...yet the media still reports that the populus wants the bill! Horse Poop! 2010...WITHOUT DOUBT, VOTE THEM OUT!

Posted by: my4653 | December 23, 2009 6:19 PM | Report abuse

TigerHawk, this is some pretty low-rent trolling of you to equate the empty Sarah Palin, who makes her living as a small-time celebrity grifter and facebook troll, with Al Gore. It's also yet another example of the sheer derangement that vomits out of the mouths of right wingers when it comes to Gore, a man who stands as a living reminder of the moral and political failures of conservative voters. Gore was right, you were wrong. When pressed to make a correct decision, you allowed your animus to Clinton and Gore get in the way of thoughtful reasoning. Get over it and stop blaming him simply because he points out the foolishness of your belief system and moral failures in life.

Posted by: constans | December 23, 2009 6:20 PM | Report abuse

my4653, you fail to address the substance of Ezra's post, unless you're arguing that the media reports on Sarah Palin's opinions in a conspiracy to make the right wing look bad.

Posted by: constans | December 23, 2009 6:21 PM | Report abuse

my4653: "~70% of the public is against the healthcare proposal...yet the media still reports that the populus wants the bill!"

You neglect to consider that some of this opposition is coming from the left because it doesn't go far enough. So if you wanted to increase support, you'd advocate restoring the public option, Medicare buy-in, allowing Medicare to bargain for prescription drugs, etc.

Posted by: dasimon | December 23, 2009 8:29 PM | Report abuse

She's not in office or running for office. What cracks me up is that you political reporters can't seem to stop gnashing your teeth and raging that you have to cover her.

Coverage such as the great Hawaiian visorgate - not even a news story, but covered fully, with venomous commentary. She can't even go on vacation without cheap shots directed at her.

But, you press folks are being victimized, poor dears.

Posted by: annetta3 | December 24, 2009 1:12 AM | Report abuse

Please, Ezra: "Media" is plural.

Posted by: fredbrack | December 24, 2009 1:20 AM | Report abuse

Oh yeah.. I saw the hatchet jobs of Charlie Gibson and Couric.

Posted by: Mainer1776 | December 24, 2009 10:04 AM | Report abuse

This article I’d expect in the Onion. The way the media swoons over Barry the con. This is just another hit piece on Palin trying to hide under a different tack. It is nothing more then misogynistic hit piece written by a myopic hack.

Posted by: dukas | December 24, 2009 11:00 AM | Report abuse

" 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"

What a horribly misogynist statement.

Because she did write it, it proves that you are nothing but a an echoing vessel containing nothing but hate.

Pitiful, just pitiful.

+

"stories about sarah palin now contribute to pollution in our universe."

"These people don't always lie, but their ethical standards do not include telling the truth."

"this is some pretty low-rent trolling of you to equate the empty Sarah Palin, who makes her living as a small-time celebrity grifter and facebook troll, with Al Gore."

FEEL THE HATE!!!!!

SOON YOU WILL BE WITH US!!!!!


Posted by: NOBrain | December 24, 2009 11:17 AM | Report abuse

I love watching liberals in the media get tied in a knot over Sarah Palin. She's not my choice for president in 2012, but I must admit that most of her issues strike a chord for those of us that are fed up with the current craze of "oh my god CRISIS, let's have BIG GOVERNMENT fix it!"

Call me libertarian, right-wing conservative, whatever. But the Democrats have clearly played their hand in 2009 that big government spending and control over all aspects of our lives (cap/trade, health care, stimulus, etc..) is the answer. Sarah Palin is thankfully an effective voice against that poisonous ideology.

Many of us have returned to the Constitution and found that from FDR through now, we have let things get out of control, and this is a new awakening for American values of limited government and self-reliance. Sarah's voice fits that well, even for those of us that are not star-struck with her.

The liberal media just does not get it. They are clinging on with the Democrats and let's hope going down with the ship in 2010/2012.

Posted by: randall_carter | December 24, 2009 11:24 AM | Report abuse

Poor Ezra, as a journalist he himself is having the same problems his profession has, trying not to sound biased as he so obviously is! So, Sarah is smart, intelligent enough to "use" the media? The basest sentence in Ezra's article is the one that speaks to the media and the hard work it supposedly does to tell the truth...while later he says that they decide what is true enough to be "news". Get over it Ezra, it is impossible for any media type that belongs to the Lamestream Media establishment to understand, cope or know anything about what is true or lies. You have been writing so much of those that is is impossible for your own work not to inhibit you from knowing the difference.

Posted by: sharinlite | December 24, 2009 11:25 AM | Report abuse

Ezra Klein is a little liberal b@tch. MSNBC's favorate little worm.
I just love how she gets under all you jourbalist's skin. Here is a private citizen with a Facebook and Twitter account taking on the vast left-wing media, Mr. Obama's government, the Democrats in Congress, the United Nations, former Vice President Albert Gore, Levi… “alis Ricky”, Hollywood and WINNING!! I will raise TWO MILLION DOLLARS for former Governor Sarah Palin should she decide to run in 2012.
There are TENS OF MILLIONS like me, at minimum.

Posted by: idesign | December 24, 2009 11:29 AM | Report abuse

So the media which trumpets its self as the "Watchdog' of politics and politicians finds that "Palin has put the political press in a submissive position", like a puppy on its back wanting its belly rubbed. Of course it is not a new position for the political press as per the following exchange about candidate Obama between Tom Brokaw and Charlie Rose in October 2008 after Obama ahd been campaigning for two years.
ROSE: I don't know what Barack Obama's worldview is.
BROKAW: No, I don't, either.
ROSE: I don't know how he really sees where China is.
BROKAW: We don't know a lot about Barack Obama and the universe of his thinking about foreign policy.
ROSE: I don't really know. And do we know anything about the people who are advising him?
BROKAW: Yeah, it's an interesting question.
ROSE: He is principally known through his autobiography and through very aspirational (sic) speeches.
BROKAW: Two of them! I don't know what books he's read.
ROSE: What do we know about the heroes of Barack Obama?
BROKAW: There's a lot about him we don't know.
Mr. Obama's past is written in invisible ink, no high school records, no college records, no SAT scores,no university records, no GPAs from any school, no written dissertations, the proverbial "pig in a poke". Mr. Obama's written record are two 'memoirs' one rather poorly written and the second more scholarly that some question the authorship. Rolling over for a political person is par for the course for the political media.

Posted by: mosmanpat | December 24, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

To Ezra, jkaren, et al:

Sarah Palin: A Liberal Lament

"Last night I saw upon the stair
A little woman who wasn't there
She wasn't there again today
Oh, how I wish she'd go away..."

-- [Apologies to William Hughes Mearns]

Posted by: wfnaegele | December 24, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Great article about Sarah Palin.
Wait a minute...aren't you part of the media that you're complaining about? Aren't you doing what you're complaining about?

The people posting comments here of the left-leaning variety see no hypocrisy or irony here as they think about and write about Sarah Palin? Talk about obsessed.

You guys are trying to seem all logical and thoughtful and... writing poems???

Freakin' zombie morons. Get a hold of yourselves! Thanks for the laughs!

Posted by: mtwhere | December 24, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

I'm so very sorry wfnaegele,I meant USING poems. You probably have some original stuff somewhere in the cupboards.

I don't expect the hater in any of you to be suppressed long enough for talent to emerge.

So I'll have to be talented enough for us all in saying... freakin' zombie morons!

I have two words for you and no they're not Happy Halloween.

Perhaps we'll share more thoughtful and enlightening moments together in the Sunday edition of the newspaper that this writer is representing... Oh wait, nope I guess not. I'm good with that.

Just one more time... Freakin' zombie morons!


Posted by: mtwhere | December 24, 2009 1:49 PM | Report abuse

This article is highly laughable. I was aghast with just the first few sentences. Say, didn't we recently elect a POTUS who received the treatment Weigel describes Palin receiving? You know, let's rephrase the direct quote: The problem is that Obama has put the political press in a submissive position, one in which the only information it prints about his 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 Obama has leveraged his celebrity — his 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.

Posted by: Captain_Universe | December 24, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

Say, Weigel, imagine if David Letterman had joked that Sasha Obama had been knocked up by a prominent New York Yankee...

Posted by: Captain_Universe | December 24, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

Some political writers are so bad....oh well the Post keeps giving them a forum so it appears pretty hopeless pointing out how genuinely disgraceful they are. That's OK because they are becoming irrelevant so fast it isn't going to matter. Cheers. And Merry Christmas, Sarah.

Posted by: lavistabb | December 24, 2009 5:41 PM | Report abuse

You Palin bashers realize that Sarah has a degree in journalism and has anchored local news? What, do you think she just fell off of a turnip truck? She is mastering the media all from a free social networking site and the occasional newspaper op-ed all at no cost to her. And if the McCain campaign hadn't strangled her she would have aced the Couric and Gibson interviews. She is a much better communicator unlike the cheap empty suit collecting dust in the WH

Posted by: TitletownUSA | December 26, 2009 12:31 PM | Report abuse

“which the only information it prints about her comes from prepared statements or from Q&As with friendly interviewers.” This is exactly what Valerie Jerrett stated a few months ago about how they handled the press when Obama was running for POTUS. They didn’t seem to mind it at that time. These writers still think if “they” didn’t report it, it “didn’t happen”. No longer.

Posted by: radioone1 | December 26, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

"...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"

COMPLETE AND UTTER BS. Obama has benefited from softball, fawning, practically worshipful press coverage and continues to do so.

You, sir, and Mr. Weigel are LIARS.

"and no equivalently powerless political figure receives anything near the free coverage that the media lavishes on her."

Most of it negative, thanks to the press. But due to Dan Rather and you media circling the wagons to protect him, we now know exactly what journalists really do.

You verbally and pictorially assault and harass this woman continually. But the more you do this, the more it shows YOU ARE BULLIES, and the more sympathy she gets.

And newspapers why their business continues to decline. Well done. And you can forget about the government bailout I'm guessing you hope to get. THAT betrayal of the First Amendment will F up anyone who supports it or tries to enact it.

Posted by: zgystardst | December 28, 2009 12:22 AM | Report abuse

Sarah Palin is the political version of that fake character in that terrible Al Pacino movie Simone. Who knows if she is actually behind her facebook comments or her WaPo op-eds? They sure don't seem to be within her intellectual or rhetorical capacity (sorry, but someone as ineloquent as her did not coin the ear-worm, focus-grouped phrase "death panel." Sounds like Frank Luntz's work to me.). Her Neo-Con handlers are exploiting these new methods of information dissemination and shielding her from true public exposure. She is a puppet and her supporters and the media are being played for fools.

Posted by: snrub | December 29, 2009 7:19 PM | Report abuse

Reprinting Palin's facebook posts as "news" is lazy journalism. Journalist should be ashamed. You are not doing your job, you are just printing a politician's PR for her. The public deserves better.

Palin's book has been proven to be filled with many lies, mistakes, and exagerations (She even lied about her daugher's birth date saying she was born the day after the Fourth of July, yet Willow was born on July 7). Yet, the media has done zero digging into Ms Palin's lies, but instead just continue to print her ghost-written pieces.

Take a stand for Gawd's sake and show some integrity by not reprinting every little twittter of Palin's and demand something of her. Why not do some digging into Palin's "facts" in her book. There is plenty to question.

Posted by: trisha4 | December 30, 2009 12:16 PM | Report abuse

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