I woke up this morning to a Twitter feed full of references to a one-night stand that Sarah Palin allegedly had in 1987 when she was a single woman. Because the tryst supposedly involved former NBA star Glen Rice, the story lit up across the board -- politics, media, sports, and gossip blogs ran it, most of them citing the National Enquirer by way of Joe McGinniss's new book about the ex-governor. Most mainstream sources, to their credit, didn't waste a blurb on this revelation. For those that did, outrage followed.
For the umpteenth time, we find ourselves back here in this very familiar and unsettling spot that forces us to debate the merits of covering what's happening in Sarah Palin's life when anyone can plainly see that the answer is absolutely nothing. Other bits about Palin that leaked reveal she used cocaine, she cheated on her husband with one of his business partners, and that she's mean to her kids. We'll have to wait a week to find out how McGinniss got this information, and why any of it matters. (An early New York Times review says it doesn't.)
Some reporters tried to spin the story to show its significance through portraying Palin as a hypocrite for advocating abstinence only for us to discover she didn't heed her message. This, too, fits a narrative. In the October issue of the Atlantic, David Greenberg says, "Today's scandal-a-month journalism has clearly gotten out of control. Rationalizations abound, many of them quite rickety, for tilting the balance between privacy and exposure ever further from the former and closer to the latter."
Journalists who did report the alleged affair today caught flak for it, but one person who seemed to escape the wrath was the man who started it all: McGinniss. His hope of selling lots of books trumps all, and it appears that his tactics and tips are all but forgotten and forgiven. We expect daily reporters to use good judgment and common sense in a way we don't from writers seeking a best-seller. Once the story was out there today, it was unbelievably hard to pass up.
Why? In short, because Palin absolutely fascinates us. It's why books have been written about her, why movies will follow, and why the Washington Post's Dana Milbank famously took a month reprieve from reporting about her. We all experience Palin fatigue, yet we still can't stay away when the next juicy story drops. Through all of Palin's Fox News appearances, dissection of her emails, bus tour, family saga, there are people wondering aloud "Who Cares?" in hopes that others will back away. Yet, here we are again.
Last night I attended a lecture given by New Yorker movie critic David Denby on the subject of whether movies have a future. Denby questioned how the younger generation of theatergoers today are experiencing cinema. As summer blockbusters have become the norm, Denby said, studios have shied further away from greenlighting arguably more important works built around drama, suspense, wit, irony, and other traditional methods of dynamic storytelling. Younger people are now seeing movies built around franchises like Transformers that they already know and love and crave more of.
Journalism, I believe, sits in the same strange position. Reporters used to inform people about what they needed to know, cultivating the conversation. But journalism today is much more reactive, reflecting what people are already talking about. Who Cares about Palin? It's incredibly obvious that people do care about her. And the discussion of why people do is vastly more interesting than talk of her sexual history. Having that national conversation could go a long way toward fixing this problem for future generations; it would also help children get a glimpse into how thrilling politics can be once you eliminate the explosions and get back to the dialogue that was once so fantastic.