In what has 2012 election-watchers holding their breath, former governor Sarah Palin takes to the basic cable airwaves on Sunday with her home state reality show/travelogue, “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” on TLC at 9 PM.
The show doesn’t answer the question of whether she will run for president in 2012, although it does address another pressing Palin mystery: Can we see Russia from there? “Almost,” she says.
But it does fit into one of the hottest political trends of the past few years: political hopefuls landing paid gigs on national media outlets as they unofficially nurse their greater political ambitions. Whether the goal is national, (think Mike Huckabee with his own Fox show, or Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ms. Palin – all on the Fox payroll) or statewide (think Eliot Spitzer, whom many speculate is priming the pump for another run at New York State attorney general or even governor, now with his own daily CNN show), this is the campaign strategy-du-jour.
The big trend
“This is the big trend right now,” says Atlanta-based Republican strategist David Johnson. The current craze kicked off in 1999 with Mr. Gingrich, who took a news analyst job with Fox. The move has accelerated in the past two years as Fox News has expanded its stable of whisper candidates on the payroll – and others have hustled to remain competitive. Each politician who gets a national soapbox ups the ante, says Mr. Johnson. In the ferocious 24-hour news cycle, he adds, “everyone is now jostling to keep their name in front of the public, whether it’s a reality show, an analyst post, or a radio or TV program,” he adds.
The very same pols who ante up big bucks to put their message ads in front of the public are getting paid big bucks to put their faces and voices on television and radio.
Politicians have always looked for novel avenues to reach an audience, notes John McNulty, a political scientist at the State University of New York in Binghamton. Richard Nixon gamely challenged the “Laugh-In” crew to “Sock it to me” in 1968. And, he points out, Ronald Reagan took to a daily radio show in between his stints as governor and president. The expansion of this ego-drive to the mass media in a cable universe of hundreds of channels, not to mention the Internet and “an obviously partisan broadcast network on Fox,” is what he calls the 21st-century version of politicians' timeless need to never be forgotten.
The move has some very obvious upsides and downsides, both for the politicians and the public. For the undeclared candidates, says Johnson, having a platform to define an image “on your own terms” has a great advantage over messier venues such as town hall meetings or press conferences, where reporters can challenge positions and policies.
Blurring of lines
But, says former New York State Assemblyman Jerry Kremer, constant exposure opens even the most well-groomed public figure to the possibility of a career-killing faux pas. And beyond that, he adds, “people don’t like to have politicians in their face all the time,” he says, adding, “it gets annoying, and they just tune them out.”
Steffen Schmidt, a poltical scientist at Iowa State University in Ames, says the issue of the politicians' control over their media exposure doesn’t worry him. There are too many pesky bloggers and online forums to take on the politicians once they actually declare. The bigger concern, he says is the total blurring of lines for the public’s understanding of what message is actually being delivered.
“It will be harder than ever for the general public to know when someone is setting up for a political run for something or actually analyzing,” he says, adding that “most people don’t know how to sort that out. Analysis, entertainment, news, and political ambition will become one.”