As Sarah Palin prepares to go head-to-head with Katie Couric in guest appearances on the NBC and ABC morning news shows Tuesday, a few words are raising eyebrows among news watchers, namely the moniker “co-host” for Ms. Palin.
NBC, promoting the appearance of the former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate on its website, said: “Sarah Palin will co-host Tuesday. She’ll reveal a different side of her than you've seen before.”
As a ratings ploy, the gambit has already succeeded, garnering buzz about whether the twin appearances will evoke memories of the infamous Couric/Palin interview on CBS during the 2008 presidential campaign, which many saw as the key turning point in which the McCain/Palin ticket began to slide.
But does this move to slot an openly partisan political figure in the host seat cross some sort of important line for a morning show produced by the network news division?
“A host has the opportunity to steer the conversation,” Ed Arke, associate professor of communications at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., says via e-mail.
Palin is being billed as a co-host and her openly partisan views could be problematic, he says. But, the larger issue is whether a news magazine like the “Today” show will begin to mimic or mirror the personality-driven discussion shows of the 24/7 news networks, he adds.
The major networks such as NBC, CBS, and ABC, he says, “have managed to maintain a somewhat issues- or story-driven focus,” rather than hyping the personalities hosting the show. “This move by NBC could be the start of efforts to try and grab more attention for who is talking, rather than what the programs are discussing."
NBC spokeswoman Megan Kopf points out via e-mail that Palin will be a guest in the first hour, interviewed by the hosts. Palin will only move into the co-host chair during the second hour, where she will “participate in segments like “TODAY’s Professionals.’ ”
Ms. Kopf is quick to note that Palin will not be paid either for her appearance as a guest in the first hour or for her co-hosting stint in the second.
“It will likely give the show some ratings hype, but hosts are not supposed to be considered so partisan,” he says via e-mail. Bringing Palin on as an analyst or commentator and labeling her as such is fine, he adds, “but co-hosts of a news organization's morning show should be journalists.”
But Palin is already known as a partisan, says Len Shyles, a communications professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia. She has been a well-known public figure for at least five years since her national run for federal office, he points out, adding via e-mail, “does that make her arguably more honest than reporters who keep their political biases secret?”
The question, says Professor Shyles, then comes back to asking why a solid news organization such as NBC, which has been in the news business for nearly a century would put its reputation at risk “by making such a poor choice in Palin?”
The answer, he says, is to challenge “Good Morning America” and former "Today" anchor Couric, who is filling in all week for "GMA" host Robin Roberts. “NBC wants to take the wind out of the competition's sails,” he points out. And since it's only a one-day event, any justified public criticism will quickly subside.
“This story has virtually nothing to do with news,” he says, adding, “rather, it has everything to do with business.” Media watchers will be looking to compare the ratings of the two programs for the match-up between Couric and Palin, he says.
Veteran news producers have little problem with Palin’s appearance. " 'Today', 'Good Morning America' and 'CBS This Morning' all do news and entertainment without any fallout,” says former ABC and CBS producer John Goodman, via e-mail. “If George Stephanopoulos, with his Democratic Party and Bill Clinton history, can host 'Good Morning America' daily, Sarah Palin can certainly temp co-host 'Today,' ” he adds.
“These morning shows do all sorts of things that are not strictly news,” she says. “Now if they replace Brian Williams with Sarah Palin, then I might start to panic.”