Sarah Palin vs. mainstream media: Who's winning?

Sarah Palin's Bus Tour to Nowhere is attracting a gaggle of reporters, much to the chagrin of the declared Republican candidates. How savvy is Sarah Palin in handling the media?

Steven Senne/AP
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (left) poses with celebrity look-alike impersonator Cecilia Thompson during a tour of Boston June 2, 2011.

By Matt Latimer


It has been three years since the first exclamatory sentences were deployed and grammatically challenged Twitter invectives unleashed in the epic conflagration between Sarah Palin and the "lamestream" media. You'll never guess who's winning the war.

Judge for yourselves: On one side, the news business continues its dreary decline. Papers have folded. Reporters face mass layoffs. Even Palin's 2008 nemesis, Katie Couric, has abandoned her once coveted anchor desk to again show viewers how to jazz up their sex life, wear figure-flattering swimsuits, and make the world's yummiest blueberry pie. Meanwhile the Alaska governor has become rich, relevant, ravenously read, widely watched and, at least in terms of consideration as a presidential candidate, dangerously close to respectable. In the tawdry codependency that exists between Palin and the press—neither can quit the other—exactly who is supposed to be the dimwit again?

Last week saw yet another example of the Alaskan's unmatched skills in media manipulation. All Palin need do is get on a tour bus and head east and Washington's most elite scribes fall over themselves to find out where she's headed, what she'll say, what she’ll do. All of it was meaningless, of course, and the press corps knew its collective chain was being yanked even as they jawboned everyone from Sarah Palin's housekeeper to her first cousin's neighbor's best friend for any morsel of "news" about her plans. As one of Mrs. Palin's frenzied chroniclers put it in a moment of clarity, “She's probably retiring to her bus each day, turning on the TV and laughing at everyone trying to figure out what the hell she's up to, then watching hits on her website go through the roof.”

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Members of the press, that queasy feeling you have begun to experience is the knowledge that Sarah Palin has become a media genius. And she owes it all to you. Keep it up, and this once unthinkable transformation just might propel her to the White House.

Though she may be the shrewdest practitioner, the former governor is far from the first to make use of the mutual abhorrence society of Washington reporters and the Republican rank-and-file. To those in his party fed up with what they saw as biased news coverage of the GOP, the war in Vietnam and Watergate, Richard Nixon's "enemies list" was less a paranoid strike against free speech than a reflection of reality. Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, another once-obscure former governor, won acclaim on the right for decrying those he famously labeled "nattering nabobs of negativity." Years later yet another vice presidential contender, Dan Quayle, tried to turn savage press mockery into a rallying cry ("I wear their scorn as a badge of honor.") Quayle's boss, the first George Bush, languishing in a dismal and doomed re-election campaign, cheered dispirited supporters with a bumper sticker that read, “Annoy the Media. Re-Elect Bush.” It was the only popular message the campaign found (so of course it was quickly discarded.). The second Bush, too, never failed to win applause when he took shots at the Fourth Estate. Even the media's favorite Republican, John McCain, turned on his "base" when he realized that there were GOP votes to be gained.

Members of the press, that queasy feeling you have begun to experience is the knowledge that Sarah Palin has become a media genius.

And yet the level of enmity between the press and Sarah Palin somehow has managed a further descent. Never before in modern political history, in fact, has any legitimate contender for high office treated the press with such constant, gleeful, unyielding contempt. (Dick Cheney comes closest). A contempt, by the way, which does not lack justifications. In the view of many Republicans, even some who felt her unready for the vice presidency, Palin was never given any chance—by the media or the McCain campaign—to recover from what her disastrous early encounter with the national press or the vicious caricature that followed. Though widely attributed to her, thanks to her media critics and Tina Fey, Palin never actually uttered what became her most uttered what became her most memorable line, "I can see Russia from my house." Widely expected to break down and drool during her lone debate with the notoriously loquacious Joe Biden, Palin felt she won little respect for surviving the encounter. A few even made the case that she won.

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Palin has been criticized for conducting interviews with supposedly sympathetic and "biased" outlets like Fox News. Yet her defenders note that the same charge is not made by those critics whenever the Clintons appear on television with George Stephanopoulos, their former aide, or with their political supporters on MSNBC.

But it is more than this. Governor Palin's treatment in 2008, fair or unfair, self-inflicted or not, reawakened a long held resentment of the "mainstream media" by mainstream Republicans—over the false story circulated in 1992 that President George H. W. Bush was unfamiliar with supermarket scanners, thus "proving" he was aristocratic and out of touch, to the phony draft documents used against his son in 2004, to a sense that coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was unshakably hostile to the war effort. Referred to with thinly disguised disdain by prominent media types—her very existence so clearly annoys the hell out of them—Palin has become a repository for these long-stewing grievanceS. This has made her more lethal than she otherwise might have been based on her performance alone.

She continues to embark on a strategy that only a decade or two ago—before Fox News and the blogosphere—might have been political suicide. The Alaska governor has taken every opportunity to pounce on media misstatements, to defend even would-be rivals like Newt Gingrich when it suits her anti-media campaign, and to use Twitter, Facebook, and other untested media strategies to directly spin her own narrative to the country. It is working.

Tim Pawlenty’s press team would have exchanged high fives if more than a handful of reporters cared what he did on Memorial Day weekend. Sarah Palin went out of her way to give reporters no information as to her whereabouts at all.

Few covered Jon Huntsman's thoughtful discussion of a real policy issue like U.S. relations with China; instead cable channels, websites and blogs were dominated with pictures of Sarah striding a Harley. Maybe Emperor Palpatine was onto something; Governor Palin's hatred of all things media has made her strong.

But can it make her president? The fact that the question can even be asked with a straight fact shows just how far she's come. And in a Republican primary that so far has been woefully message-challenged, "annoy the media" may not sound half bad.

Matt Latimer is the author of the New York Times bestseller, SPEECH-LESS: Tales of a White House Survivor. He was deputy director of speechwriting for George W. Bush and chief speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld.

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