Before she was a guest host on this morning’s Today show — 45 minutes before — Sarah Palin was a guest, joining Matt Lauer on the morning of three Republican primaries, to offer “her take on the race.” Toward the end of the interview, Lauer asked his soon-to-be temporary partner a pointed question: Should the Republican nominee this year choose a running mate with more experience than Palin had in 2008?
“I would say it doesn’t matter if that person has national-level experience or not,” Palin answered. “They’re gonna get clobbered by the lamestream media who does not like the conservative message.” Lauer thanked her for appearing, adding that she’d be back as host in Today‘s 8 a.m. hour, “which technically makes you part of the lamestream media for that hour.”
Point, counterpoint. But maybe the appropriate question for Lauer and the producers of Today might be: Having thought about it, would you have instead chosen a guest host with more experience heading up a morning show? Answer: Of course not!
Because the great unspoken irony of Lauer’s question was that Today was borrowing Fox News contributor Palin for precisely the same reason the McCain campaign recruited her. It was facing rising competition (Good Morning America, gaining in the ratings) with a charismatic face (Katie Couric, former Today host and Palin’s old bête noire, doing a week stint to publicize her upcoming talk show). Today was flagging, fading, in want of a boost of energy and buzz, even if it took a transparent publicity stunt to do it. Today needed … a Game Change.
The actual hour itself showed that the term lamestream media might just as well have been invented to describe morning news shows — that being a reflection less on Palin than on the second-hour material NBC gave her.
Palin started off in a segment in which she was more guest than host, fielding round-robin pop-culture questions from Lauer in a panel segment. Topic A was another public figure trying to shift media fields: Oprah Winfrey, who talked to CBS about her problems launching OWN. When Lauer asked if she was surprised audiences had not embraced Winfrey’s cable channel, Palin answered as if filibustering a tough debate question:
“First, more power to Oprah for gettin’ out there, showing that guts, showing the grit it takes to succeed, and no doubt as she admitted it’s much tougher than she thought it would be. But she’s representing what makes America great, you know, you have opportunity to succeed and to fail and to keep trying again, and that’s what she’s representing. So more power to her!”
O.K., then! Later in the segment, Palin decried how a Facebook “enemies” app helped people use the social-media site to “tear down” others; this a little more than a week after Palin used her own Facebook page to question the “intelligence and patriotism” of people who disagree with her about the importance of President Obama’s “hot mic” statement to the Russian President.
Throughout the hour, Palin seemed more steady, comfortable and opinionated on subjects involving women and teenage girls in the media and culture — a subject she’s spoken out on often and had first-hand experience with, as in a segment on girls and their body image: “What would be nice, though, would be if the marketplace would demand, though, that maybe some reality shows would start portraying some very healthy independent young women.”
And speaking of personal experience, it served her in a question on, of all things, Ashton Kutcher being cast to play Steve Jobs in a biopic: “Do any of you here have experience with people being paid a lot of money to pretend that they’re you?” The often sexist scrutiny she received in the campaign even added a personal dimension to a conversation about whether Jessica Simpson was being unfairly criticized for her pregnancy weight gain. Though it didn’t make it any less weird to see a vice-presidential candidate doing that, or chatting with Tori Spelling about motherhood and the perfect party appetizers. (“More than two bites, you don’t want to have it at a party.”)
Overall, though, Palin was more interesting as an interview subject. Lauer asked whether she’d be “happy” with Mitt Romney as nominee, and Palin, God bless her, is not media professional enough to hide her distaste: she inhaled deeply and grimaced as if petting a snake. As a host, with her rambling style and still baroque syntax, she’s not likely a permanent threat to Ann Curry (though I felt for poor Ann, uncomfortably chaperoning Palin like an eldest child forced to entertain a distant cousin from out of town).
But the whole gig provided an intriguing twist on the whole “lamestream media” critique. In the end, NBC was more than glad to use Palin for counterprogramming, and Palin more than glad to accept the media exposure. Is NBC going to win over any Tea Party viewers by having Palin talk canapes with Tori Spelling for one morning? Fat chance, and in a way I wonder if the appearance of such bald-faced cynicism is even more damaging than the appearance of bias. NBC treated Palin as both a political newsmaker and a morning news host within the space of two hours; and Palin took the MSM job with a smile.
By the time it was done, I wasn’t sure which side the whole episode was more degrading for: NBC, blatantly groveling for ratings, or Palin, giving a cheerful Mama Grizzly growl to Al Roker. Welcome to the lamestream, Governor Palin. It always has room for one more.