Tuned In

Sarah Palin Steers Into the Skid

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Wait! Come back! I swear this is not one more post about Sarah Palin’s “blood libel” reference!

Well, not exactly. I will leave it to others to judge the way she described her personal claim of unfair treatment in the media using the term for the charge that a religious minority, usually Jews, use the blood of Christian babies in rituals.* I’m interested in the fact that she responded at all—directly and pugnaciously—to the charge, after the Arizona shootings, that her rhetoric was inappropriate or contributed to an atmosphere of violence.

Palin’s pattern of responding to media controversies differs 180 degrees from the way past politicians and public figures have. Namely, she seems to operate on the belief that it is never better to defuse a controversy when you can ratchet it up instead.

The background, if you missed it, is that after the assassination attempt and murders, Palin was criticized for her various gun analogies (“Don’t retreat; reload”) and especially for a campaign map that placed crosshairs over Democratic-controlled congressional districts. She didn’t address the map or comments directly for days (an aide claimed that the crosshairs were actually “surveyors’ symbols,” though Palin herself had referred to them as “bullseyes”).

When she finally did, it was with this counterattacking video and post on Facebook, which essentially said that her critics and the media were the ones “manufactur[ing] a blood libel that serves only to incite the very hatred and violence they purport to condemn.”

Again, others can debate whether she’s right. What’s interesting is how distinctively Palin the response strategy is. Past politicians or media figures, embroiled in a controversy after a shooting, would probably be counseled to take a calming tone, downplay the controversy and move past it: I meant it peacefully, I condemn violence, sorry if anyone was offended but free expression is important, &c. Instead, she raised the ante—I’m not inciting violence, but my critics are.

That’s what Sarah Palin does: she steers into the skid. She doubles down. And it’s a strategy that has parallels in any number of public disputes she’s been involved in: death panels, Family Guy, David Letterman, and so on. “Refudiate” isn’t a word? I knew it wasn’t! And Shakespeare made words up too!

I can guess what her supporters what say to this about here: What do you expect her to do? Letterman insults her daughter, and she’s just supposed to smile and take it? Liberals say that she caused a shooting and she’s supposed to roll over?

But again, my point here is not what she should do, but what past public figures would do. Certainly she’s hardly the first politician to get in a public feud: George H. W. Bush walked out on confronted Dan Rather over Rather’s walking off the CBS set, Harry S Truman offered to rearrange the face of a critic who panned his daughter’s piano concert.

With Palin, though, escalating the feud is not the exception but the rule, which either speaks to the general evolution of our politics or her particular gift for practicing it. Past politicians would see an incident like the linkage (or at least the unfortunate resonance) between the map and the shooting to be something to put behind them. Palin, almost invariably, sees controversy as an opportunity. It is better to ratchet a controversy up than down; it is better to rough it up than to smooth feathers.

As a media strategy, it’s different—and depending on how well Palin does in whatever the next phase of her career is, for all I know it may turn out to be a brilliant one. In which case, whatever Palin has or has not “inflamed,” she may well influence how future politicians deal with media firestorms.

* (For one thing, why should you care what I think? For another, judgment depends in part on whether she—or whoever wrote the commentary—knew the phrase’s meaning to begin with, or just heard it and thought it generally meant “libel involving blood.”)