The Deal with Palin

January 19, 2011 8:21 pm

When my colleague David published the letter from TPM Reader BW taking us to task for our coverage of Sarah Palin I knew he was poking a hornet’s nest. And your emails confirmed my assumption. I thought David put it pretty much right in his response. But I thought I should weigh in as well on this point.I get that some of you think we give Palin too much attention. I understand it. Respect it. And here and there that may be right. As David put it, like any editors we strike a balance between what our readers have an appetite for and what we think is most important. Indeed, on both sides of the ledger we’re constantly trying to pull those two streams into alignment. As you can probably imagine, our traffic data leaves little doubt that our readers find stories about Palin irresistible.

But there are a few other points that come up in this conversation I want to address.

Frequently a reader will write in to say, “Why are you giving her so much attention? You’re just pumping her up. If you and the other places would stop giving her so much oxygen, she and her whole circus would just wither away.”

I don’t know which circle of the hell of myopia you need to be residing in to think like this. But it’s very deep in there, I assure you. Much as I love this thing our team has created, I assure you that Palin’s popularity, notoriety, footprint on the public stage is quite independent of TPM. Indeed, TPM and a dozen other similar or not so similar publications you can find on the web. Palin is such a big deal because she’s got a chunk of the political nation that is very, very into her. She resonates deeply with her core supporters. She’s one of those people who cuts an electric figure on the public stage because she slices right through the society and generates one intense response from one side and a completely opposite but equally intense response from the other. And she says, let’s be honest, a lot of really crazy stuff.

This is actually a real blind spot for liberals in general — the idea that things that are crazy or tawdry or just outrageous are really best ignored. Don’t give them more attention. You’re just giving them what they want. Or maybe it’s not so practical and utilitarian. Maybe, they say, it’s just beneath us. Focus on the important stuff.

On so many levels this represents an alienation from the popular political culture which is not only troubling in itself but actually damages progressive and center-left politics in general no end. It’s almost the fatal flaw. Democrats often console themselves that even when they don’t win elections, usually their individual policies are more popular than those of Republicans. Too bad you can’t elect a policy. It’s true for instance that Health Care Reform — which still has more opponents than supporters — is pretty popular when you ask people about its individual components. But why is that? It’s not random, because that pattern crops up again and again. It’s another one of the examples where liberals — or a certain strain of liberalism — focuses way too much on the libretto of our political life and far too little on the score. It’s like you’re at a Wagner opera reading the libretto with your ear plugs in and think you’ve got the whole thing covered.

Politics can never be separated from policy, unless you’re in a political science class or getting a Phd in health care economics. The two are inextricably combined. And any attempt to pry them apart in a deep way is not only hopeless but also deeply wrongheaded.

And there’s another point.

With Sarah Palin and pretty much everyone else, we’re not trying to pump her up or pull her down or really do anything else with her. That’s a second order kind of thinking I don’t think is really ever proper for us to get involved in. (To give one funny and ironic example I’m pretty sure our Eric Kleefeld was the first person to pick out Palin’s use of the term “death panels” in a Facebook post back in during the Summer of Hate and much of the subsequent furor ricocheted off that original post.) TPM has its news section and its opinion pieces, most of which are here in what we now call the editor’s blog. We’re very big on chronicling folly, outrageousness, pretention and ignorance. Which makes Palin a regular topic. Just what effect that has on her on anything else is really above our collective pay grade. You just try to get the facts right and call it like you see it — honest with yourself and honest with your readers. And focusing on anything else is a distraction and its own kind of dishonesty.

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