originally published on CJR.org, the Web site of the Columbia Journalism Review
If Sarah Palin’s nomination kindled a certain skepticism among the talking heads last week, this week’s rousing St. Paul speech cast a spell.
As everyone must know, Palin electrified the 98.5 percent Caucasian delegate crowd Wednesday night, and the jolts detonated a chain reaction across the airwaves. As the headline to Michael Calderone’s piece on Politico read, “Media swoon over Palin's fiery speech.” Most of Calderone’s examples were overtly right wing. Fred Barnes: “She’s a natural. You can’t teach this.” Hugh Hewitt: “terrific.” Chris Wallace: a “star was born tonight.” There being a cliché shortage, Wolf Blitzer, for his part, chipped in: "Clearly, a star has been born here in the United States." What was born was a myth. A visitor from another planet would be relieved to know there nothing’s really at stake in this election.
On Sunday, Palin’s mythic debut got a considerable rise out of jaded bloviators who couldn’t be much troubled to evaluate the factual claims in her speech. They preferred a live myth to stodgy old truth. How tedious it would be—how awfully blah and, well, journalistic—to take her speech to have any propositional content at all. It was not evaluated; it was judged—highly—for its feel, resonance, stimulus value. What mattered, evidently, was that the woman crackled.
Palin said in St. Paul: “I stood up to the special interests, the lobbyists, big oil companies, and the good ol' boys network.” Was it true? On what issues? With what outcomes? No such questions were raised on ABC.
The governor’s “luxury jet was over the top,” Palin gloated. “I put it on eBay.” Her implication was seized by John McCain himself on Friday, saying straight out that she “sold it on eBay, and made a profit!” You didn’t learn on ABC’s This Week that it didn’t sell on eBay at all. Rather, Alaska sold the plane to a Palin political ally, Larry Reynolds, for $2.1 million, $600,000 less than it cost the state in the first place.
“To confront the threat that Iran might seek to cut off nearly a fifth of world energy supplies ... or that terrorists might strike again at the Abqaiq facility in Saudi Arabia ... or that Venezuela might shut off its oil deliveries ... we Americans need to produce more of our own oil and gas,” Palin said Wednesday. “And take it from a gal who knows the North Slope of Alaska: We've got lots of both.” How much is “lots,” round tablers? When might said oil arrive? Nobody asked.
When the governor raves about “war memorials in small towns” (small towns are to Sarah Palin as 9/11 is to a certain former mayor of a certain big town), might it be worthwhile to ask how many Americans actually live in small towns? Would it graze too perilously close to journalism if anyone broached the subject?
Stand back, effete snobs. Palin is anointed this cycle’s “Reformer with Results,” and, gosh, she sounds as though she means it. That is the story line. If George Stephanopoulos alone among the round tablers demurred at times, and David Brooks was relatively balanced, George Will was visibly excited at the new girl heading to town promising “change” and “reform.” Martha Raddatz, who can throw a serious question when she puts her mind to it, did not put her mind to it. She gushed about Palin’s manner and neglected Palin’s claims. Palin can bring a carnivorous Republican crowd to its feet with a line like, “Al-Qaida terrorists still plot to inflict catastrophic harm on America ... [Obama’s] worried that someone won't read them their rights?” So is there any more to be said on the subject? Is there half an eyebrow to be raised in the house?
It fell to Chris Wallace on Fox News to elicit from sneering McCain campaign manager Rick Davis the declaration that Palin would meet with the news media when they “treat her with some level of respect and deference.” When the hockey mom makes her hockey momness a vice-presidential (meaning presidential) qualification, and consequently mom-related phenomena become news fodder, it is evidently a collapse of “respect and deference.” Thus are the nation’s watchdogs to be brushed back.
Later came ABC’s bulletin: Gov. Sarah Palin has deigned to grant a news interview later this week. (This qualifies as news on the woman-bites-dog principle.) The grantee is Charles Gibson. He might ask where she stands on tax cuts for the rich and on social security privatization. He is obliged to be prepared, of course, on earmarks she gathered-a minute of Googling will do. He should quiz her on her Alaska secession connections—isn’t that story at least as interesting as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Bill Ayers, or Tony Rezko? Does she propose to arrest women who abort? With what, precisely, in George W. Bush’s nearly eight-year-long record does she disagree? Why did she support Pat Buchanan during the 2000 campaign? Does she have an opinion on the reasons why the nearby icecap is melting? And about Alaska’s much-touted proximity to, and vigilance toward, Russia—has she ever visited that all-important neighbor? What is her analysis of Russia’s place in the world?
Gibson can toss underhand, or he can throw hard. We’re not voting for hockey mom of the year. We’re voting for one of the most powerful people in the history of the world. Rise from bedazzlement and the soft bigotry of low expectations. Treat her the way you would treat Joe Biden. Treat her the way you treated Hillary Clinton. Surely a possible vice-president of the United States can take it.
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