Tuned In

Why the Media (Over)Covers Sarah Palin

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Or: An Explanation, and Example, of the Very Phenomenon The Author Is Discussing:

Today the Washington Post published a sprawling, two-year investigation into America’s huge, complex and hard-to-fathom system of national security and intelligence. What, as of this afternoon, was the most-read article at the Post’s website? “Palin invents word ‘refudiate,’ compares self to Shakespeare.” (Thanks to Post web editor Garance Franke-Ruta and my former colleague Karen Tumulty for pointing this out.)

Since the election of 2008, there’s been a cottage industry of Sarah Palin media criticism. (That is, media criticism of coverage of Sarah Palin, as distinct from her own criticism of the “lamestream media.”) First, there’s the question of whether the media covers her fairly—whether coverage is biased, sexist, dismissive, credulous, &c. And then there’s simply the question of whether the media covers her too much.

Sure it does, in the sense that the press overcovers almost anything it gets excited about. But Palin’s “refudiate” comment—a controversy, almost too picayune to recap, over whether she misspoke [for “refute”? “repudiate”? both?] or whether she was engaging in Shakespearean coinage—is a perfect example of how heavily the press covers her, and how well they are rewarded for doing it.

Of course, it’s also an example of how well Palin cultivates the media’s obsession with her. Her response to most controversies—don’t steer away from a storm when you can tack into it instead—plays them for maximum heat and exposure. If her response had simply been, “So I said it—what’s the big deal?” it would have been an opportunity missed. When she instead responded that her usage was an example of the living language going back to Shakespeare, it was guaranteed both to enflame her critics (She thinks she’s Shakespeare!) and delight her fans (she beat those know-it-alls at their own game!).

[Update: Oh, and it doesn’t hurt, at a time of shrinking margins in the media, that a quickie story on the latest Palintroversy costs a hell of a lot less than a two-year national-security investigation.]

The question is whether there’s any reason, besides readers’ interest, that justifies the attention to Palin. You could argue that the press shouldn’t be covering any potential 2012 candidates in 2010. But given that it is, it’s hard to see why she wouldn’t be the most prominent among them, at least for now: she was a national candidate in 2008, she’s a sought-after endorsement in 2010 and she’s (admittedly this is a subjective call) the most talented politician-as-politician among the currently talked-about GOP candidates.

Is it possible she won’t run? Sure, it’s possible anyone won’t run. Is she too polarizing to win a general election? Maybe—I don’t know nor does anyone in the media, and the last thing I want is for the press to dole out coverage on the basis of judgments of “electability” that it’s not very good at making. Does having resigned as governor say she doesn’t want, or shouldn’t hold, national office? That’s for the voters to decide, if they get the chance to. (Here are the requirements to be elected President: attaining 35 years of age; being a natural-born citizen; being able to get people to want you to be the President.)

None of that, on the other hand, means that the etymology of “refudiate” is a subject of major political news. (As opposed to the attentions of pop-culture idiots like me.) To see why it’s treated as such anyway, look to the Washington Post’s most-read list.