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Is the Mainstream Media Fair to Sarah Palin? Is the Mainstream Media Fair to Sarah Palin?

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COMMENTARY

Is the Mainstream Media Fair to Sarah Palin?

For the most part, the answer is yes--and here's why.

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Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin at a tea party rally held by Americans for Prosperity at the Capitol in Madison, Wis., in April. Has the media been fair to her?(Darren Hauck/Getty Images)

Does the political press corps--professional, accredited journalists as opposed to bloggers--apply a different standard to Sarah Palin than it does to other candidates?

First, let’s blow away a few straw men.

The outré conspiracy theories about Trig Palin not being Palin’s son. That lunacy was not taken seriously (and, indeed, was dismissed) by most of the media.

 

(PICTURES: Images from Palin's bus tour)

Palin was distrusted from the start. Maybe by John McCain’s staff but not by the media. Look at the rapturous coverage after her convention speech. When she was new and genuine, she was new and genuine.

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Nothing that Palin has done since the election has given the political press corps any reason to collectively reframe its opinion of her. Her forays into policy have been more provocative than substantive. She quit her governorship in the middle of her first term. She popularized the misleading concept of “death panels.”

The political press corps fashions itself as an umpire, calling balls, strikes, and fouls and occasionally throwing people out of the game. This is an imperfect construction because it is often hard to divine the objective “strike zone.” Journalists, polls have shown, tend to have liberal social views; but for most reporters, the journey to figure stuff out begins there. For partisans, it ends there.

Palin gets mad when the “media” cover bloopers she makes, like her coinage of the word “refudiate.”  The press--as distinct from the partisan media–-incorporates these errors into its lack-of-readiness narrative. Palin does not make a distinction between a political press corps that thinks she’s not ready and a tribal belief among some Democrats that she is not smart. She does not distinguish TMZ from PBS. In her world, Bill Maher is Katie Couric. The New York Times is Daily Kos. Palin seems to genuinely believe that the press is unremittingly hostile to her. She believes that her children have been subject to humiliation and harassment.

Palin says that the people who cover politics for a living have a negative disposition toward her because of her faith. Plenty of evangelical candidates are given a fair shake by the press. Mike Huckabee’s candidacy was boosted because the press corps actively liked him. Tim Pawlenty holds nearly every position ascribed to Sarah Palin and is not mistreated by the press, nor is he ridiculed for his beliefs. And the media that allegedly mistreats Palin somehow remains obsessed with anything she does. Every utterance is a national news story; every tweet triggers news cycles full of analysis. Palin has redefined what it means to get “free media.”

On the campaign trail, she can be incredibly compelling. She forges an emotional bond with her audience, the type of bond that Mitt Romney has not managed to achieve. But until Palin figures out how to cross the plausibility threshold among the press and the Republican elites, she will remain at a disadvantage.  

The press is not monolithic, and there are certainly some individual reporters who harbor animus toward Palin, just as there are reporters who like her and think that the rest of the pack underestimates her political skills. Finally, it’s not the “lamestream” media or gossipy McCain aides who have offered the most-withering criticism of Palin. Her chances are pooh-poohed by everyone from Karl Rove (who has the ear of almost everyone in the GOP) to Bill Kristol (her onetime backer) to the professional conservative smart set (like The New York Times’s Ross Douthat). If this is a display of liberal bias, then liberals are a lot more numerous than we think.

 

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