Palin's 2012 Media Game
With her swaggering Twitter and Facebook posts— today she called out the White House’s “incompetent” response to WikiLeaks—Palin may have duped the old school press.
Sarah Palin has become the reality-show candidate for president, and she’s doing it all wrong.
That, at least, is the consensus of Washington wisemen and media mavens who say that rather than boning up on policy and grafting on some gravitas, Palin has chosen to cash in on her celebrity status and exacerbate her polarizing presence.
But I’m starting to believe the detractors are wrong and that Palin is executing a shrewd strategy that has catapulted her past potential rivals, co-opting the same media establishment she loves to denigrate. Even her recent hints about running for president—if indeed she’s willing to subject herself to constant journalistic scrutiny—are designed to stoke interest in her now that midterm madness has faded.
In her TLC series on Alaska, we see Sarah the frontierswoman hunting, skeet-shooting, and beating a captured halibut to death. None of these skills are in demand in the Oval Office, but they cast her as a strong, swashbuckling figure. Compared to that image, Mitt Romney and Tim Pawlenty seem like, well, guys in suits.
“Sarah Palin has never done anything conventional,” says John Coale, a Washington lawyer and informal adviser to Palin. “The reality show shows a very nice person—what’s not to like? It’s great TV. With her Facebook page and tweets, to the great upset of the media, she communicates around them and they don’t like it. There’s no filter.”
David Frum, the conservative commentator and a harsh Palin critic, tips his hat. “The language of politics is very formal, very stilted, and to most people very artificial and remote,” he says. “Palin speaks in a completely different way. Palin’s said 100 things that would have ruined someone else, and she’s still popular and thriving. These media ventures enable her to connect with people while allowing her to avoid answering questions that might embarrass her with more traditional gatekeepers.”
Those gatekeepers—the infamous lamestream media—are obsessed with Palin, trumpeting her every tweet. They do so even when she’s slamming Politico or Katie Couric or, my personal favorite, “impotent and limp” reporters who use anonymous sources. They can’t help themselves; she’s a helluva story. She drives ratings and Web traffic in an age when every reporter’s page views can be measured. Each side enables the other.
“If she says the leaves are falling in autumn, it’s picked up in 35 newspapers,” says her friend Coale. “So why does she need them?”
The numbers tell the story. According to a Google News search by New York Times blogger Nate Silver, Palin’s name has been mentioned in about 20,300 articles this year, compared with 3,640 for Romney, 3,280 for Newt Gingrich, 2,980 for Pawlenty and 1,870 for Mike Huckabee. She has been Googled six times as often as these four gentlemen combined.
And don’t be fooled by the fact that the ratings for Sarah Palin’s Alaska dropped from 5 million to 3 million after the debut episode. In the YouTube age, far more people see the clips and follow the chatter over the series than watch it as couch potatoes.
Palin is, if nothing else, a master controversialist. As her second book, America by Heart, was about to hit bookstores, her publisher, Rupert Murdoch’s HarperCollins, sued Gawker over leaked excerpts, but then Palin posted some juicy tidbits herself on her Facebook page. Her growing hints about running for the White House—Todd is leaning yes!—are like a striptease that just happens to coincide with the book launch.
Sure, it’s amusing to hear this onetime sportscaster talk about her desire to “clean up” the sorry state of journalism, when she is openly hostile to what most of us think of as journalism (which isn’t to say she hasn’t been treated unfairly at times). She even filleted the press on Facebook for daring to poke fun at her slip of the tongue in declaring our country firmly behind North Korea. North, South, whatever.
As Palin writes in a broad-brush passage in her book: “Most of those who write for the mainstream media and teach at universities and law schools don't share the religious faith of their fellow Americans. They seem to regard people who believe in God and regularly attend their church or synagogue as alien beings, people who are ‘largely poor, uneducated, and easy to command,’ as The Washington Post once famously put it.” (That was in a 1993 article that produced a much-needed apology.)
Why keep picking at this scab? There is a method to this madness, as her conservative base loathes the media and cheers every punch she throws.
Palin almost never talks to the establishment press (one exception was her phone conversation with Robert Draper of The New York Times Magazine). She is largely insulated through her paid perch at Fox News, which gives her exposure without interrogation. Palin kicked off her book tour last week with a sympathetic Sean Hannity interview, which allowed her to rip “hateful blogs” and “lying reporters,” and to complain that her 20-year record “has been so warped.”
But the highlight of that record was the governorship, a job Palin walked away from in the middle of her term. You would think her highest imperative would be to demonstrate that she is serious about governing—especially with 67 percent of those in a recent ABC/Washington Post survey saying she is unqualified for the presidency. Instead, Palin sends out 140-character jibes on Twitter. And in a very real sense, it has worked.
That is, up to a point. In the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 55 percent of Republicans approve of Palin, but only 9 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of independents. It is not difficult to imagine Palin winning the Republican nomination; it is harder to fathom how she wins a general election. But even Barack Obama is forced to talk about her, telling Barbara Walters: "I don't think about Sarah Palin."
The viral marketing of Palin includes her family. Once, her daughter Bristol was known as the teenager who had an out-of-wedlock baby; suddenly, she was sashaying her way into the finals of Dancing With the Stars, with her mother cheering her on amid conspiracy theories about whether Tea Party types were manipulating the public voting. It’s important for Americans to get comfortable with a potential first family; I can recall Bill Clinton posing for the cover of People with Hillary and Chelsea in 1992 because many voters didn’t know they had a daughter, or what an asset Michelle Obama became in 2008.
For now, Palin is the accidental multimillionaire who positions herself as an ordinary hockey mom. She struck a note of sarcasm with the Times’ Draper while discussing news organizations: “They’re the elite. They know much more than I know and other people like me!”
She could just as easily be referring to Wall Street wizards or housing lawyers or congressional leaders. “Her message is that all the people who think they’re so smart aren’t really so smart. That’s a message that resonates,” Frum says.
John Ellis, a seasoned political analyst and a cousin of George W. Bush, puts it this way:
“‘She's too stupid’ is what the Establishment GOP really thinks about Sarah Palin. ‘Good-looking,’ but a ‘ditz.’ This is unfertile ground, since Palin can turn the argument on a dime and say: ‘They drive the country into bankruptcy, they underwrite Fannie and Freddie, they bail out Goldman Sachs, they fight wars they don't want to win, they say enforcing the immigration laws is silly and they call me stupid! I'll give you a choice: You can have their smarts or my stupidity, which one do you want?’”
That’s why the images of Palin hunting and fishing and telling Willow she can’t have boys upstairs may matter more than her policy positions—and separate her from a president with a Harvard Law degree. If the smart guys have failed, if the credentialed creative class has messed things up, it opens the door for a plain-spoken populist ready to refudiate the old order.
That message, naturally, rankles the journalistic elite, which nonetheless serves as a megaphone for Palin’s musings.
“If she says the leaves are falling in autumn, it’s picked up in 35 newspapers,” says her friend Coale. “So why does she need them? I have never seen a phenomenon like Sarah Palin.”
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.