Much Ado About Nothing

With all of the talk about bias in the media and the decline of American journalism, I think it is important to point out how difficult it is to decide what to cover. Sports is easy; just print box scores and stories that summarize the games from major professional sports and the local high school and college events. The opinions flow from previous games, upcoming games, or upcoming seasons. To be certain, there is garbage in our sports coverage now, mostly as a result of writers doing their best to keep up with the hyperbole of ESPN. News, and politics in particular, have become a very different animal.

The difficulty with covering our democracy lies in the difference between actual actions and behind the scenes maneuvering. The House of Representatives is in almost constant activity, operating as they do without the procedural encumbrances of the Senate. The House actually votes on issues, and majority rule directs the outcome. The Senate, at least in view of the public, works on one or two issues at a time. In today’s climate of Republican obstructionism (that isn’t a political label, it is a fact), bills take months to reach an up or down vote. The space in between is filled by commentators, ex-politicians, and opinion-makers who prognosticate and pontificate on what is really happening. Writing or producing a story that accurately summarizes the major facts of a given issue boils down to figuring out which voices to record, and which sources to believe.

Those with a notion of vast media conspiracies are either blind to, or are unwilling to see the sheer number of moving parts involved. People on every side communicate in social networks, but that is a practice that has been done for years in the original social networking sites; the Washington D.C. cocktail circuit. The new element is the sheer volume of noise that has to be sifted and sorted; think tanks, blogs, academics, consultants, polling firms, p.r. agencies, and political staffs all have a message. The Rational Middle has dealt with the difficulties of sorting this data before, but this column has a much more focused target. As I sort through the noise coming from the national media, I am confronted with an annoying and hard to understand bit that appears almost daily.

I am referring to the ex-half-term Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin. Mrs. Palin does not make much noise herself anymore, primarily because she doesn’t have to. The nation’s most famous hockey-mom posts something on Facebook or butchers a fact in a commencement speech, and the national media goes into a feeding frenzy. Cue the 6th grade gossip circle; “Did you hear what Sarah said today?!” I am forced to disclose that I didn’t mind hearing excerpts from her commencement speech to a university in California…she seemed to think that state was where The Gipper was born and went to college. That is legitimate political comedy. I also have no problem with coverage of her political action committee, SarahPAC, as they are actively raising cash and purportedly spending some on the occasional candidate. That is legitimate political news.

What I am tired of, is the wall to wall reporting of this woman’s every Facebook posting and tweet. We have seemingly reached a point in our society where every utterance is cause to bring out the scales. The debacle last week with Shirley Sherrod wasn’t the byproduct of a jittery administration, nor was it the doing of a discredited and unethical right wing blogger. While both contributed to the sorry episode, the cause was our national ability to turn one act, statement, or word, taken in or out of context, into a socially and professionally damning controversy. It is detail-oriented reporting taken to the level of absurdity. It is “do unto others…” ignored completely. I wonder how many who are outraged on the right and left of this nation, have not themselves committed the same egregious acts, without the benefits of camera or blogger to document?

With Mrs. Palin, I understand some of the reporting. If she purports to continue her political career, it is the responsibility of political journalists to cover her professional activities. But her activities on Facebook and Twitter ought to be left out of normal coverage. Record those statements to be sure, they become relevant if and when she declares a candidacy; but leave her out of the daily rundowns. The paradox of her coverage is that many who report her sometimes outlandish statements are motivated to do so out of a sense of righteous indignation. In covering the former governor, they give her the kind of publicity and public platform that usually takes huge amounts of money to maintain.

Sarah Palin is the lady next door. She is an average American with an enormous ambition and a healthy dose of charisma. The trap in covering her should be obvious; as a national politician seeking a leadership position, she is dangerously unqualified and doesn’t seem interested in learning. But, she does know as much about monetary policy, industry, and national security as the average American does. When a columnist or television personality calls her stupid, who are they really insulting? We had a similar discourse about George W. Bush; as a nation, we decided that if the person was someone we could see having a beer with, then we probably didn’t want them in national politics.

Sarah Palin used a word last week that doesn’t exist, then made a joke about Shakespeare to cover the embarrassment. Again, for full disclosure, I thought both her joke and the ensuing twitter lists of Palin meets Shakespeare were hilarious. When we give an individual more coverage than they warrant, we inevitably resort to criticizing that individual for high crimes and misdemeanors we are also guilty of. I have a much wider professional experience, and much deeper education than the ex-half-term Governor of Alaska…and I have made many mistakes in my essays. In the twofold interest of denying coverage to irrelevant personalities, and refraining from the throwing of stones from within glass houses, I won’t be picking on Sarah Palin for “refudiating” anything. I would also encourage the “real” journalists out there to adopt the same posture.

The Rational Middle is giving a big Palinesque wink at the crowd…