Palin As Entertainment

Don't put stories about Palin’s recent interviews in the politics page

Alessandra Stanley, television critic for The New York Times, writes yesterday morning about Sarah Palin’s modus operandi during her post-election, pre-future-career interviews with Fox News’s Greta van Susteren and The Today Show ’s Matt Lauer. “Unleashed and not humbled, Ms. Palin is on a speed date with history, upending protocol as she goes,” Stanley writes in an entertaining article that garnered one of the top spots on the NYT’s Politics landing page.

Here’s her juxtaposition of the current realities of the presidential transition and the merry-go-round that is Palin’s post-election antics:

The news media has moved on to President-elect Barack Obama and his transition team as they try to get a grip on the perilous state of the economy. Ms. Palin’s interviews dragged the subject back to her campaign woes, and she lingered there, feeding curiosity but making no real effort to steer her questioners to the present.

This is a tale of a politician, but it’s not a political story. Palin seems more interested in keeping her visage in the spotlight than in saying anything substantial as a newly certified potential Face for the Republican Party. And, in turn, the accounts of these recent interviews are inarguably more interested in her entertainment value than in her political news value. So, without shame, let’s call it what it is: a review of a series of amusing television encounters that belongs next to the latest tween star exclusive, not next to Obama transition news.

CNN’s Jack Cafferty wrote in a similar vein on his blog yesterday:

When’s the last time a losing vice presidential candidate was still in the news a week after the election? Nobody seems interested in interviewing Joe Biden, or for that matter, John McCain. But we just don’t seem to be able to get enough of Sarah Palin.

The news media are scrambling to get her thoughts on everything…the campaign, the charges from within the McCain camp that she is a “whack job” and a “rogue,” the $150,000 wardrobe, the travel expenses for her family that were charged to taxpayers of the state of Alaska. It’s obviously something besides her keen and subtle grasp of the complexities of being president of the United States.

Cafferty’s right to point out that the press still seems ridiculously preoccupied with Palin (and ridiculously not preoccupied with vice-president-elect Biden). And his list of things that still intrigue the media reminds us that the very things that made Palin a particularly news-generating vice presidential candidate (from her astounding bluster to the reportorial and legal investigations that plagued her in the campaign spotlight), now exist on their own legs, without any current political relevance.

As I see it, there are a couple of potential ways to approach Palin’s interviews this week from a political news angle. One is to use her now unrestricted face time with the media to report on a valid new face for the GOP (in a way that contributes to the reflective articles that have been and will be written about the future landscape of the party). The other is to consider these interviews as Palin’s opportunity to conduct a post-mortem with members of the media about her press coverage throughout the campaign—but that hinges on Palin’s willingness to use these interviews to that end. (And Palin neither admitted to errors or weaknesses—“she did not allow that she ever stumbled or had difficulty getting up to speed on some issues”—nor assessed in any productive manner what went wrong, other than to reductively dismiss “bloggers in their parents’ basement just talking garbage.”)

But Stanley’s article isn’t really written with the GOP storyline, or Palin’s future ambitions, or even the media bias story as a central point. Rather, it’s about how amusing these encounters were (moose chili for Greta Van Susteren! a haddock and salmon casserole for Mr. Lauer!). It trades on the notion that Palin’s current news value is largely based on her entertainment value—say, a more dignified version of Michigan J. Frog’s dance routine. If you read through it (and it’s engagingly written), there’s markedly more interest in Palin as an anthropological curiosity than in anything that’s very politically relevant. (Erm, how’s that reality show “The Palins” coming along?)

In that sense, Stanley, as a television critic, is a great person to write the Palin-cooks-for-Lauer article. She attempts to situate these interviews—at least somewhat—in the entertainment realm, and that’s the saving grace of the piece. Stanley’s humorous descriptions sketch a tableau of theatrics, not substance: Palin “put herself on full display,” in the kitchen her “demeanor is as positive and peppy as ever,” her message “sounds highly ‘Sarah-centric,’” and like a soap star returning after hiatus, “her determination and self-confidence appeared to be unscathed.” (Though, taking after political reporters, Stanley lets the governor’s grammatical fumbling reveal itself—not least among them, her use of “progress” as a transitive verb and her painfully contorted “But not me personally were those cheers for.”)

So, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the article. But, situated prominently as it is on the NYT politics page, the article also indirectly defends the media impulse to continue covering her in the name of political news while treating her like a superficial celebrity. Maybe news accounts can find a way to take her seriously. But there’s also nothing wrong with just calling Palin’s media junket by name and putting it in a different section: celebritainment news is mighty fun to read, after all.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.