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The Palin press shield is cracking

Tim Heffernen meditates on the question that's irrelevant for anything but drawing in traffic and blog comments: whether Sarah Palin will run for president. He doubts it, and his first reason is the best:

For starters, the tactics Palin is using at this moment only work for the person whom she actually is at this moment. She is not running for anything, is not holding an office, is not speaking for any specific group. So she can hide from the press, ignore questions, or remain silent, and tell her version of the story without fear of it being challenged. And since, undeniably, she's a newsworthy person, whenever she's in X town speaking before Y people about Z miracle child/anger/patriotism/hunting skill, that gets reported, while what she, in fact, says (and whether it is remotely true) does not. That's a luxury that will end the moment any potential candidacy begins. It's easy, and not incorrect, to accuse the mainstream press of giving Palin an easy time these days, as Sullivan does. But the press is never more bloodthirsty, more investigative, more prone to go for the throat than when its prey is a presidential wannabe. Reporters may act like obedient pups now; in 2012, they'll be a pack of Cujos.

This is a subject that's irritated me and inspired blog posts like this in the past. But I think things have changed to the benefit of Palin.

One of the least-commented-on Palin facts of the week was her news conference outside the Knoxville, Tenn., courthouse where the man who hacked her e-mail was being tried. That's right: a news conference. The kind of thing she had not done since losing the 2008 election, the kind of thing she has skipped at every political speech in 2010. And you barely heard about it, because Palin survived it unscathed.

Absolutely, Palin lacks the adroitness and ability to dodge questions that have heretofore been essential to presidential candidates. But she's been engaging, in a limited way, with the media for a few months now. She has made "gaffes," although they didn't seem that way to her base. (The immediate populist approval of her notes-on-her-hand moment was a surprise even to me.) She has endorsed candidates and commented on hot-button issues. That's the important thing -- nothing Palin does puts her at odds with the Republican base. So it's hard to imagine what media "gotchas" would wreck her Republican primary chances.

But wouldn't Palin have to play ball with the media in the "freak show" of a presidential campaign? First, I think she's got more experience with the "freak show" than any other potential candidate save Mitt Romney. (Newt Gingrich once played at this level, but in a very different media universe -- his comeback as a GOP wiseman has not subjected him to the scrutiny Palin gets.) Reporters already write about everything she does and says. And half of those statements become media firestorms, like her fairly anodyne "targets" on the districts of House Democrats who voted for the health-care bill.

Second, I'm not convinced Palin would need to give the media that much access. Reporters don't wait for responses from her side before running stories on her. If a candidate is hot enough, he or she does not need to give the media what they want.

In the White House, President Obama has masterfully controlled the media and limited access to him. He has not given a prime-time news conference since July 2009. I'd point you to Dana Milbank's April 13 column on the nuclear summit to get a sense of just how good Obama is at freezing out the fourth estate.

This isn't to say that Palin has become a more credible general election candidate. Most Americans dislike her and think she's unqualified for the White House. And most Republicans -- even those who like her -- think she has more to do to become electable and ready to govern. But if she runs, she's not going to suddenly get flummoxed by the media.

By David Weigel  |  April 29, 2010; 1:15 PM ET
Categories:  2012 Election , Sarah Palin  
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