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A media opportunity as Sarah Palin, aided by Oprah, goes to the mainstream


November 16, 2009/8.25

American readers will get to see Oprah Winfrey interview Sarah Palin today, in what is widely tipped to be a casual, feel-good special to promote the former governor’s book, Going Rogue.
   Some media have tipped this as the launch of ‘Sarah Palin 2·0’, one who is now free from the Republican Party machine and can speak her own mind. Palin needs it, too: after the hammering the media gave her during the campaign trail, and the lampooning by Saturday Night Live, she needs to distance herself from the image of the right-wing political neophyte.
   Much of the coverage, as this publication mentioned at the time, was biased, leaving aside whether we liked what Sarah Palin stood for or not. As with Hillary Clinton, American media questioned whether Palin could be a fit mother and a politician, even if they never realized they never asked whether Barack Obama could be a fit father and the president. Her policy positions, many of which were out of kilter with the many Americans who voted for Obama, were not attacked with the vigour one might have expected had she been a man. Instead, things got personal and even familial, something which fans of CBS’s resident cranky old man, David Letterman, know full well.
   Yet as many opponents of Sarah Palin know, her time as Alaskan governor was not without imperfection. Any other politician would have been given a dressing-down for the things that went wrong there: the disputes with the oil companies and the reality behind her relationship with them, for instance; or the claims about ‘the bridge to nowhere’.
   An easy point of attack, for those who disagreed with her, might have been Gov. Palin’s view on abortion: she was against it, even in cases of rape, one which only, according to polls at the time, a minority of Americans agreed with. It is certainly a position universally panned by staff I asked at this magazine.
   The venom that was released instead seemed hard to believe. Most Palin positions were ignored for the simplistic picture that Saturday Night Live popularized: here was a right-wing country gal from Idaho who somehow fluked in to the gubernatorial position in Alaska and came second in a beauty pageant along the way.
   Was it, we thought, due to sexism? It’s a charge that we levelled at some of the American media then, certainly: one which we in New Zealand can feel smug about after having two prime ministers, two governors-general and a chief justice who happened to be women. At one point, the legislative, executive and judicial were helmed by women; something which, even in the time of Thatcher, Britain could not claim. The US is, after all, a country that took far longer for a woman to break the glass ceiling on a job as relatively trivial as who reads the nightly news on a big three TV network. (Connie Chung had to share her duties with Dan Rather officially; not counting that experience, Americans had to wait till the twenty-first century and Katie Couric’s emergence.) A female in the White House? It seemed harder to fathom than the Obama miracle.
   There was an extra element, however: the insistence by media (not just American) that the general population is stupid. That the simplistic Saturday Night Live version was easier to swallow than debating the Governor on any of her policy positions. Why? Because she might actually have been able to defend them, when ill-informed journalists enquired into the dealings of the 50th state for the first time.
   Never mind that the Governor is sometimes not fluent in her interviews or even some of her speeches—she makes my long sentences seem stunted in comparison—the media chose not to fight. They chose to ridicule.
   Let me be quite clear: Americans are not stupid. It doesn’t matter what walk of life they are on, they want to be informed and treated with respect.
   We hear all the time in the media business that newspapers target their reading to the level of an 11-year-old (I used to hear 12 and recently I even heard nine, and the number seems to fall by the decade), and I think this is daft. Lucire’s policy, certainly with the print magazine, is to present as intelligent a view as possible, because even if the level is above the average reader’s (and I wonder if we are that far above), it gives one something to aspire to. Remember being in the first grade and looking enviously at the kids in the fourth, and the much cooler books they seemed to be assigned?
   So the fact that nearly a million people have joined Sarah Palin’s Facebook fan page—she beat Oprah Winfrey’s total a very long time ago—might not mean outright agreement with her. It might not even mean outright opposition to President Obama’s policies. It could mean, to some Americans, redressing the balance created by media that failed in their objectivity. In her ranks, they receive her Facebook notes, some of which take dubious positions, but why should they trust the media after last year? Even lovers of Fox News might be suspicious, after it initially blamed Palin for the GOP loss last year, before becoming her cheerleader the week after.
   And her numbers might swell when Going Rogue is launched on Tuesday.
   However, is this really Palin 2·0? While she has softened on her positions in terms of the media image—her Hong Kong conference speech, behind closed doors, painted her as a small-government conservative who supported business—one wonders if these are different from the positions she believed in the first place. Frankly, we never clearly heard much about them.
   Her business element was there in parts last year, even if her love of drilling bordered on environmentally hazardous and made one wonder about Palin’s own connections to the oil business. Both major political parties—even President George W. Bush himself—have talked about alternative energies, a direction which Lucire happily endorses. Good decisions are never easy, and one which continues a gas-guzzling lifestyle cannot be, for a leader, wholly responsible. ‘Drill, baby, drill,’ is not a catch-cry with visionary appeal. ‘Death panels’, meanwhile, play to those who view the Obama administration with suspicion—the Murdoch Press among them—and who cannot be bothered reading s. 1233 of the America’s Affordable Health Choices bill for themselves.
   Of course, part of the negative image fell on her own shoulders: Palin 1·0 was happy taking on the gun-toting, moose-hunting image to capture “heartland” voters, even if such a generalization of their lifestyle is inaccurate and unfair on those who live in what were termed ‘red states’ (a.k.a. ‘blue states’ for the 2012 elections). She did, by all accounts (even her own), botch her interview with Couric. It wasn’t enough for those who wanted to see her destroyed.
   Yet having simplified the argument to the level of a comedy sketch, some are now on the defensive. Going Rogue will be analysed to shreds, in the hope that the smart-arse positions of the campaign can be maintained. It ignores the million that Palin has captured on Facebook, indicative of even wider support in the US.
   We are not saying that the million needs to be pandered to—but alienating them further is unwise. Educating and reporting seem smarter.
   What Americans might want to see this week, as Oprah Winfrey kicks off some form of mainstream acceptance of Sarah Palin, is Media 2·0: one which acknowledges that accurate and fair reporting serves the United States’ best interests, and lets Americans judge the former governor for her policies, not for her parodies. Getting down and doing one’s journalist duty is preferable to sensationalizing for the sake of sensationalism. Failing that duty will see more head toward blogs and read what they think the media have hidden from them—when some bloggers often hide facts to suit their views.
   Some media have begun to give Palin a fair go, realizing that she is not going away any time soon. For those of us who enjoy national health care, for example, some of her writings on the American debate seem far-fetched, to say the least. That is something Americans must determine for themselves, intelligently and with all the facts. And we should let Sarah Palin fall on her own sword if she is wrong.
   Her ideas may still fail if they are outside what Americans want, but at least that is a fairer way to go than being their forever imprinted with images of a Tina Fey impersonation.

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Filed by Jack Yan

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