An extraordinary two-month drama is now unfolding about her nomination as a vice presidential candidate, and its resolution will demonstrate a great deal about the ability and capacity of press to perform genuine public service journalism in an era of Dodge City bloggers and Wag the Dog manipulations. Much hangs in the balance.
Jay Rosen spins out an ominous and all-too-plausible scenario over at Huffington Post, examining how and why Republican strategists may be able to manipulate press performance and public reaction in the Palin drama. You ought to read the whole thing; I found these two points especially compelling in light of what I’ve been thinking about this:
Sarah Palin, under intense pressure ... gives a charismatic performance on Wednesday of convention week and wows much of America, outdrawing Obama in the ratings and sending a flood of cash to McCain and the GOP.
* Strategy: bingo, that's your big break. A wave effect is unleashed by a stunning televised performance. It is shock and awe in the theater of the post-modern presidency.
Journalists watching all this keep saying to themselves: wait until she gets out on the campaign trail. Wait until she sits for those interviews with experienced reporters and faces a real press conference.
* Strategy: double down on defiance by never letting her answer questions, except from friendly media figures who have joined your narrative; like Cheney with Fox. No meet the press at all. No interviews of Palin with the DC media elite-- at all. De-legitimate the ask. Break with all "access" expectations. Use surrogates and spokesman, let them get mauled, then whip up resentment at their mistreatment. Answer questions at town halls and call that adequate enough.
Let me say right away that I expect Sarah to wow the television audience today. She is indeed charismatic and telegenic and performs superbly on script. Alaskans know this, and won’t be at all surprised when America discovers what a likable and engaging person their governor is.
I think that’s a good thing. Leaders in a democracy ought to be likable and able to persuade people to follow them. In many ways, that’s one of Barack Obama’s main qualifications.
The danger is that the Palin narrative will get caught up for the remainder of this campaign in discussion of her daughter, her husband’s driving record, the brutish My Space comments of Bristol’s alleged boyfriend. Nobody will ask – or maybe even get a chance to ask – what she would do about the economy if she inherited the desk in the Oval Office. She won’t get quizzed about NATO’s role in the post-Soviet world. She won’t get questioned about why she never bothered to visit most of the states she’s campaigning in, much less any of the rest of the world.
That will be a huge loss for American voters. Selection of a vice presidential candidate is always about picking a president-in-waiting, perhaps never more so than for John McCain. He would be the eldest first-term president in history and he’s had recurrent bouts of cancer – the kind that killed my little brother. The notion of his vice president succeeding him is not theoretical.
I spent the long Labor Day weekend in Juneau, Alaska, at my god daughter’s wedding. (She’s smart and gorgeous and her beau is a champ, since you asked). I talked with dozens of politically connected, longtime Alaskans. Most had good things to say about Palin. Not one of them thought she was qualified to lead the free world.
That won’t be true of most Alaskans, a fiercely territorial breed who will rally around one of their own, but it’s reason enough to demonstrate why her qualifications need thorough, sober examination.
Anchorage Daily News Editor Pat Dougherty made many excellent points in describing the coverage scenario for Editor & Publisher magazine. Michael Kinsley was characteristically witty in his observations at Slate (see No Experience Necessary), where Jack Shafer was even more on point (Hurricane Palin). One sample:
Thanks to McCain's miscue, everything the press touches about Palin turns into a scoop: her earmark flip-flops, her political inexperience, her Alaska Independence Party connection, her views on teaching "creationism," her book-banning phase, plus the "troopergate" scandal, her husband's ancient DUI, and her pregnant teenage daughter. And the press rampage has only just begun.
Rosen’s description of this exercise as “the theater of the post-modern presidency” might just as aptly be “the theater of the post-modern press.” We’ve talked here before about the end of the gatekeeper era of journalism, and that’s manifestly on display today. Blogs with millions of readers feel free to charge Gov. Palin faked her pregnancy to cover up for her daughter, and then (as far as I can see) remove the offending post after it’s debunked. GOP media handlers get away with hiding a newly named vice presidential nominee away from any press contact at all for days.
The old order is gone, with all its faults and all its checks and balances. We’re in new territory today, and it’s a dangerous land. I don't pretend to know how this will turn out.
To paraphrase the benediction we hear so often at political conventions, “God bless the press, and God bless the United States of America.”