Judging Sarah Palin By The Cover

Sarah Palin Newsweek cover

Sarah Palin Newsweek cover

With its outrage over Palin’s unflattering Newsweek cover photo, Fox News proves that it creates its own reality.  Senior lecturer Sarah Churchwell, writing for the Guardian.co.uk, examines from an international perspective the uproar by the conservative Republicans to the unairbrushed closeup photograph of Gov. Palin.

Last week, Newsweek ran a cover story on Sarah Palin with a close-up of Palin on its cover under the headline “She’s one of the folks (and that’s the problem)”. Republican commentators were quick to protest, but their opposition took a novel turn: they objected not to the explicitly editorialising headline, but to what they argued was an implicitly editorialising photograph. Fox News’s Megyn Kelly complained that it was “ridiculously unfair to her – not the headline, but the photograph”.

The twist was that the photo had not been altered, which, Republican pundits like Andrea Tantaros claimed, was evidence of clear bias on the part of the magazine. “This cover is a clear slap in the face of Sarah Palin,” she told Kelly. “Why? Because it’s unretouched. It highlights every imperfection that every human being has. We’re talking unwanted facial hair, pores, wrinkles.” And why is a news magazine revealing normal human imperfection suddenly objectionable, rather than, you know, normal and human? Because, according to Tantaros, “unlike movie stars and liberal media types, regular ‘folks’ have other concerns besides tweezing, waxing, moisturising, exfoliating, detoxifying and pore tightening. We’re busy.”

You have to admire the sheer effrontery of the proposition that the liberal media has time for grooming but the conservative media does not. Tantaros’s exhaustive catalogue of cosmetic procedures would seem to belie her protestations – if her appearance hadn’t already. This is a woman who is no stranger to the made-up, in every sense of the word. I was reminded of nothing so much as Claude Rains in Casablanca being shocked – shocked! – to find a casino at Rick’s at the same moment that the waiter hands him his winnings. Except that the new twist on the old hypocrisy is that the regular folks who don’t have the time or luxury to spend on superficial appearances are complaining about being confronted with unvarnished reality. Nothing is so unfair as facts in a world of spin, distortion and brazen misrepresentation.

One of my grandmothers would have called this the chickens coming home to roost – except that she was something of a diehard Republican herself. My other grandmother, a liberal elite and damn proud of it, would have said they’ve been hoist with their own petard.

There’s a reason why children learn through rote: repeat something enough, and it will become a habit of thought, and eventually a mode of perception. If you become accustomed to shaping reality to suit your own agenda, then actual reality, when it reappears, will come as an unwelcome shock. And it will always reappear. Facts don’t go away just because they’re as unwanted as facial hair. Tantaros is half right, of course: regular folks don’t object to wrinkles, facial hair or pores, and are unlikely to start disparaging Palin because of the empirical evidence of a photograph. As the article inside the magazine noted, we have far bigger empirical problems with Palin – and her imperfections are far from skin deep.

We have become so accustomed to a world of slant and partiality that Megyn Kelly, looking for reasons to object to the Newsweek cover, explicitly didn’t object to the headline, or consider it unfair. But – unlike the photograph – the headline completely lacked impartiality, announcing its “problem” with Palin from the outset.

As someone who shares that problem, I wasn’t predisposed to protest. After reading the actual article – which apparently conservative media types can’t be bothered to do, as they’re too busy worrying about appearances – I am even more disposed to agree with the article’s perspective, and its arguments. But I am deeply concerned that we’ve become so used to living in a “No Fact Zone“, to borrow Stephen Colbert’s phrase, that Kelly, Tantaros, et al could see nothing remarkable in a news magazine’s cover story announcing an interpretive judgment from the outset.

We’ve been spun for so long that we can no longer see straight – an undiluted truth, like an untouched photograph, is suspect, dishonest in its honesty, imbalanced by virtue of being insufficiently, or openly, imbalanced. We recognise distortion only in its absence. Objectivity has become objectionable, and if it’s unflattering, it must be unfair.

As an accidental expatriate living in Britain for the last decade, I have often been asked why the UK doesn’t have a version of shows like The Colbert Report, as if its absence reflects a failure of nerve on Britain’s part. But the answer seems to me obvious: it is because the BBC and the other major British news outlets still exercise the principle of journalistic impartiality, and still believe in that fusty, archaic, elitist thing called truth. They don’t always achieve it, to be sure, but as far as I can tell America’s stopped trying. Colbert only makes sense in a mediasphere dominated by the likes of Megyn Kelly, who finds objectivity unfair when it doesn’t favour her agenda. Objectivity may be an impossible ideal for humans to achieve, but that it doesn’t mean it isn’t worth striving for. There’s a reason why we call it the ugly truth.

From over here across the pond, it seems that America has been quite cavalier in its willingness to toss the principles of fact and objectivity aside in favour of a screaming subjectivity that passes for individualism and, God help us, democracy. As Colbert told President Bush at the 2006 White House Correspondents’ dinner, reality has a well-known liberal bias.

Judging Sarah Palin By The Cover

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