Sarah Palin Is Right

The media has a double standard for covering female candidates.

NEAR JUNIPER CREEK, ALASKA, SEPTEMBER 04 2010: Sarah Palin hunts caribou near Juniper Creek, in the toundra north of the Arctic Circle (photo Gilles Mingasson).
National Journal
Emma Roller
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Emma Roller
May 20, 2014, 10:18 a.m.

In 2008, a con­spir­acy the­ory about Sarah Pal­in — then a can­did­ate for vice pres­id­ent — was born. The the­ory: Pal­in was not in fact the moth­er of her then-in­fant son, Trig — her daugh­ter Bris­tol was. The blog­ger An­drew Sul­li­van fed in­to the the­ory, and it was re­sur­rec­ted in an aca­dem­ic pa­per by a Ken­tucky journ­al­ism pro­fess­or in 2011. (Salon has since thor­oughly de­bunked the Trig Pal­in con­spir­acy the­ory.)

Now, Hil­lary Clin­ton is on the re­ceiv­ing end of her own health-re­lated cov­er-up con­spir­acy the­ory — and Pal­in is us­ing the story to skew­er the me­dia and il­lus­trate what she sees as a double stand­ard for how Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an fe­male can­did­ates get covered.

Some back­ground: In Decem­ber 2012, Clin­ton was treated for a blood clot on her brain after suf­fer­ing a con­cus­sion. Clin­ton re­covered and was giv­en a clean bill of health, but Karl Rove re­mained skep­tic­al.

“Thirty days in the hos­pit­al? And when she re­appears, she’s wear­ing glasses that are only for people who have trau­mat­ic brain in­jury? We need to know what’s up with that,” Rove al­legedly said at a con­fer­ence in Los Angeles.

After cries of “Sex­ism!” from me­dia out­lets, Rove walked back his state­ment, but he was not alone in his think­ing. Re­ince Priebus, the chair­man of the Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee, de­fen­ded Rove’s com­ments and said the health ques­tion is “fair game.”

Like it or not, Clin­ton will have to deal with these kinds of ques­tions for the next two years, at a min­im­um. And judging by Pal­in’s re­sponse, the pain doesn’t fade over time. In a highly sar­cast­ic Face­book post Monday night, Pal­in poin­ted out me­dia hy­po­crisy for de­fend­ing Clin­ton against Rove’s com­ments.

“Demo­crats are right — scour­ing re­cords of a fe­male can­did­ate is just polit­ics of per­son­al de­struc­tion, and for the me­dia to en­gage in it would be un­fair, un­eth­ic­al, and ab­so­lutely UN­PRE­CED­EN­TED. You can’t probe a wo­man like that be­cause, well, it’s a war on wo­men!” Pal­in wrote.

“Amer­ica, you de­serve fair and con­sist­ent cov­er­age of rel­ev­ant is­sues be­fore de­cid­ing a Pres­id­en­tial/Vice Pres­id­en­tial tick­et, so have faith the agenda-less me­dia will re­fuse to push whis­pers and wildly in­ac­cur­ate in­form­a­tion about a par­tis­an politi­cian’s body part,” she con­tin­ued.

It’s less likely that Pal­in is de­fend­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton against per­ceived sex­ist com­ments, and much more likely that she’s just tak­ing an­oth­er pot­shot at the Lamestream Me­dia. Of course, some polit­ic­al journ­al­ists did re­buke the Trig the­ory — namely BuzzFeed Ed­it­or-in-Chief Ben Smith, who was at Politico at the time, along with Salon‘s Justin El­li­ott.

But un­like with the Trig The­ory, nearly every re­port­er cov­er­ing the 2008 cam­paign bought in­to an­oth­er nar­rat­ive — one about Pal­in’s men­tal fac­ulties. Pal­in was por­trayed, from Katie Cour­ic to Sat­urday Night Live,  as a clue­less bimbo, and that im­age lives on in Ju­li­anne Moore’s (ex­cel­lent) por­tray­al of Pal­in in HBO’s Game Change. 

Was it fair to por­tray Pal­in as in­ex­per­i­enced and un­fit for of­fice? Yes. But that’s far dif­fer­ent from the im­age the me­dia cul­tiv­ated. Cov­er­ing Pal­in as a bimbo was an un­ques­tioned giv­en. One is a val­id point, the oth­er is a ca­ri­ca­ture.

Of course, Hil­lary Clin­ton has suffered her fair share of sex­ist cov­er­age. After Bill Clin­ton’s af­fair with Mon­ica Lew­in­sky came to light, pun­dits spec­u­lated that Hil­lary — that fri­gid harpy! — had driv­en her hus­band to in­fi­del­ity. More re­cently, the idea that Chelsea Clin­ton be­came preg­nant to boost her moth­er’s fa­vor­ab­il­ity was al­most laugh­ably sex­ist. Pal­in and Clin­ton can sym­path­ize on that point.

The ques­tion Rove raised was a seem­ingly in­no­cent one — does Hil­lary have the men­tal stam­ina to be pres­id­ent? Mean­while, Sul­li­van’s the­ory about Trig Pal­in’s true par­ent­age was more of a sug­ges­tion that Pal­in was will­ing to go to despic­able lengths to main­tain her pub­lic im­age as a whole­some folk lead­er. Rove was con­cern trolling; Sul­li­van was just plain trolling.

Now, in a dar­ing feat of Nar­rat­ive Re­appro­pri­ation, Pal­in is call­ing Hil­lary Clin­ton dumb while ad­mon­ish­ing the me­dia for do­ing the same thing to her in 2008. “Ap­par­ently, Demo­crats de­mand their next chosen one’s brain must be ab­sent,” she wrote in her Face­book post.

It’s the type of quick-change polit­ic­al man­euv­er­ing that takes a healthy sense of irony to un­der­stand.

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