Prolific political reporter Robert Draper has a 7,720-word piece on Sarah Palin in this weekend’s New York Times magazine, which, as per tradition, was published in preview online today.
Much of the chatter already surrounding “The Palin Network”—enough with “The X Network” titles, please—has been about Palin’s surprising openness on the question of whether she’s running in 2012. Witness this news-making section opener:
“I am,” Sarah Palin told me the next day when I asked her if she was already weighing a run for president. “I’m engaged in the internal deliberations candidly, and having that discussion with my family, because my family is the most important consideration here.” Palin went on to say that there weren’t meaningful differences in policy among the field of G.O.P. hopefuls “but that in fact there’s more to the presidency than that” and that her decision would involve evaluating whether she could bring unique qualities to the table.
But equally interesting—for us, at least—is, yet again, Palin’s press criticisms, which seem to dominate the article. Draper’s interviews with Palin and those who populate what he terms “Palin World” show a familiar disdain for the press; and his reporting and comments on some of the trouble he had doing it show just how far they are willing to go to evade the press they so disdain.
The criticisms fly fast and loose in the feature as Palin makes pat statements about her unfair treatment and addresses more specific controversies, such as her comments about Politico’s use of anonymous sources in some of its reporting on her. It’s a kind of grab bag of the criticisms you would expect—and have heard before—from Palin. Here’s a sampler:
Palin told me that because of the media’s unfairness toward her, “I fear for our democracy.” She cited a recent Anchorage Daily News article that commented on her casual manner of dress at a rally for Joe Miller, as well as a Politico headline that used the word “drama” for an item about Representative Michele Bachmann’s quest for a Republican leadership position. Palin viewed these references as sexist — but also, she said, as “distractions.”
Purposefully distracting, I asked, or just simplistic? “How can it be simplistic?” she scoffed. “They’re the elite,” she said sarcastically of news organizations. “They know much more than I know and other people like me! So, no. They know just what they’re doing.”
And this from one her defenders:
One evening in late October, I sat in the Anchorage apartment of Palin’s onetime communications director Bill McAllister, watching old TV footage of his ex-boss during her campaign for governor in 2006. McAllister, a former reporter with the Anchorage NBC affiliate who worked for Palin in 2008 and 2009, wanted me to see with my own eyes the Sarah Palin he knew — bright and easygoing, exceedingly popular with the local press — before the national media had grossly mischaracterized her in a way he found “frustrating and maddening.”
When the ghost of a certain Katie Couric interview rears its head, Palin is not afraid to show that she is well and truly over that line of questioning:
Palin became testy when I asked her about the books I heard she had been reading. “I’ve been reading since I was a little girl,” she snapped. “And my mom is standing 15 feet away from me, and I should put her on the phone with you right now so she can tell you. That’s what happens when you grow up in a house full of teachers — you read; and I always have. Just because — and,” she continued, though in a less blistering tone, “I don’t want to come across sounding caustic or annoyed by this issue: because of one roll-of-the-eye answer to a question I gave, I’m still dealing with this,” she said, referring to her interview with Katie Couric. “There’s nothing different today than there was in the last 43 years of my life since I first started reading. I continue to read all that I can get my hands on — and reading biographies of, yes, Thatcher for instance, and of course Reagan and the John Adams letters, and I’m just thinking of a couple that are on my bedside, I go back to C.S. Lewis for inspiration, there’s such a variety, because books have always been important in my life.” She went on: “I’m reading [the conservative radio host] Mark Levin’s book; I’ll get ahold of Glenn Beck’s new book — and now because I’m opening up,” she finished warily, “I’m afraid I’m going to get reporters saying, Oh, she only reads books by Glenn Beck.”
Didn’t she think, for example, that the Republican kingmakers who were now supposedly scheming to kneecap her were mainly just concerned about how voters viewed her? “If that were the case, then they need to be courageous enough to put their names behind their criticisms,” she said, referring to anonymous quotations attacking her. “As I replied to Politico, these fellows want to be trusted to tend to our nation’s economic woes? They want to be trusted to take on the likes of Ahmadinejad, but they won’t take on a hockey mom from Wasilla? Until they do that, I dismiss them.”
But we’ve heard all that before.
What sticks out in Draper’s report are details on the degree to which Palin and her staffers actively go around the mainstream media, and how they do it, and, the degree to which a lack of traditional organization plays a part. In some ways, Draper’s piece is a look into a two-pronged media strategy: first, paint the media as biased and ineffective, justifying why you avoid it and are likely to continue doing so; then, offer an object lesson in how to do just that.
With that in mind, we learn that Palin has ultimate control of her media strategy.
[Adviser Andrew Davis is] nonetheless low-profile in the extreme, like all of Palin’s senior associates. (The New York Times Magazine’s photo editors had been trying to find an image of Davis; he assured me that they would not succeed.) Davis and his colleagues recognize that the issue of trust informs Sarah Palin’s every dealing with the world beyond Wasilla since her circular-firing-squad experience at the close of the 2008 presidential campaign. Her inner circle shuns the media and would speak to me only after Palin authorized it, a process that took months. They are content to labor in a world without hierarchy or even job descriptions — “None of us has titles,” Davis said — and where the adhesive is a personal devotion to Palin rather than the furtherance of her political career.
And we learn that there might not be a very specific media strategy at all (other than “avoid.”)
Nor, since Stapleton departed in February, does Palin have a press person — with the result that up to eight or nine of her functionaries will find themselves fielding (and usually pocket-vetoing) media requests at any one time. Just as Palin heavily edits or at times completely writes most of her own speeches and insists on reviewing any statement issued by SarahPAC, she also must approve all media contact by her subordinates, Van Flein told me. With epic understatement he added, “Because she may be busy, [an interview request] might languish for a few days.”
And we are offered a rather depressing lesson in how to equivocate on the question of whether you are actually avoiding the press or not.
I asked her if by avoiding the national press, she didn’t bear at least some responsibility for the way the public viewed her. “I’m on television nearly every single day with reporters,” she shot back. “Now granted, that’s mainly through my job at Fox News, and I’m very proud to be associated with them, but I’m not avoiding anything or anybody. I’m on Facebook and Twitter. I’m out there. I want to talk about my record, though.”Which turns out to be a strategy that aggravates the White House, among others.
“I just tweet; that’s just the way I roll,” Palin told me. “Just expressing my feelings via Twitter and Facebook. I choose them because they’re convenient for me, especially from Wasilla.” She continued: “The only thing I do consider is when I think of what’s going on in the East Coast, with the difference in time zones. I can tweet before going to bed at midnight or 1 and know that they’re up and at ’em, and they’re going to have to respond.”
His voice dripping with exasperation, the White House press secretary, Robert Gibbs, said to me one July afternoon in his office: “If I would have told you that I could open up a Facebook account or a Twitter account, simply post quotes, and have the White House asked about those, and to have the entire White House press corps focused on your quote of the day on Facebook — that’s Sarah Palin. She tweets one thing, and all of a sudden you’ve got a room full of people that want to know… .”
Gibbs shook his head and continued: “Now, I could say, ‘You know what? I’m not going to deal with that.’ And big headline: Palin Accuses Obama of X. The White House Had No Comment.”
Has it been effective? According to Draper, yes, it has.
In that endearing manner of the Beltway echo chamber, the prevailing narrative of Palin in 2009 was that that she was an incompetent ditz. This year’s story line is that she is a social-media visionary who purposefully circumnavigated the power-alley gasbags and thereby constructed a new campaigning template for the ages.
If you’re no Sarah Palin fan, you’re going to find much to rail against in Draper’s piece—there is little mention of her controversial positions, Troopergate, and all those other good things that have boiled our blood before. But as a profile that sheds new light on an already very well lit potential presidential candidate, it’s definitely worth a read. If not for the unsurprising revelations of presidential aspirations, then certainly as a portrait of a master media player using the current media landscape—Twitter, Facebook, the partisan press—to her fullest advantage.Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.