On Monday, Eric Boehlert highlighted Time‘s upcoming cover story on Sarah Palin, titled, “The Outsider: Where is Sarah Palin Going Next?” While Palin has certainly received her share of bad press, a great deal of it has been the inevitable result of her own statements and actions. Interpretive articles like this one, however, are different and provide journalists with the chance to use their judgment to put past actions and ongoing trials in a broader context that will help readers better understand the subject at hand.
Which is why this article is so problematic. In it, Time‘s David Von Drehle and Jay Newton-Small go to immense lengths to create a story out of thin air. In this case, it’s “The Renegade,” a tale about an unconventional politician making waves with her unpredictable behavior. The piece is deeply flawed, advancing conservative narratives without challenge and ignoring obvious realities about Palin, her home state, and the problems she faces. It’s an account that flies in the face not just of progressive criticisms of the governor, but of a growing chorus of conservative ones as well.
And it is exactly the kind of ratings-driven journalism that is, ironically, making magazines like Time less and less authoritative at a time when serious journalism couldn’t be more needed.
Fictions about Alaska
In order to allow themselves to argue that Palin’s decisions aren’t as bizarre as they seem to many observers around the country, the article’s authors begin by turning her home state into a land of mystery and wonder that inherently embraces the hands-off philosophy championed by the political right. Alaska is “remote, extreme, unfamiliar — and free.” It is a “land of self-invention, where no one bats an eye at a mom-deckhand-governor-whatever-comes-next.” We are told that in Alaska, “you make each day from the materials at hand.” The result of the unique realities confronting its citizens is an “ingrained frontier skepticism of authority — even one’s own.” Indeed, a “person learns in the Alaska vastness that humans can respond to events but never control them.”
Palin is, therefore, supposedly much like her homeland. She is “a modern-day version of the captive specimens hauled back to Europe by explorers of old,” someone who “remains, on some level, unknowable.” The conclusion becomes unavoidable. If you thought her resignation speech seemed strange, it’s just because you aren’t from Alaska, for “this was the place where her answer finally made sense.”
It isn’t helpful to offer a critique of the Alaskan ethos, which is entirely subjective. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t examine the idea that Alaska is an island unto itself, where people don’t need or want outsider help and where different norms and standards of behavior apply. The fact of the matter is that despite its physical isolation, Alaska isn’t independent of the lower 48 states at all. In fact, it is the nation’s number one recipient of federal earmarks, currently averaging more than $500 per person per year. Disgraced former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens became chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee for a reason, a position he held until 2006. In 2008, his last year in Congress, he secured more than $200 million dollars in earmarks in the defense appropriations bill alone, and his name was attached to more than $522 million dollars in total requests.
Nor was Palin opposed to this kind of federal intervention. Operating in a state famous for spreading the wealth around through revenue sharing, Palin followed Stevens’ lead. In 2008, she requested 31 federal earmarks totaling $197 million. The same principles applied regarding the “Bridge to Nowhere” that Palin claimed she rejected. The truth is that she didn’t want to turn the money down. Instead, she advocated using (another) $200 million in federal funds Stevens procured for it for a host of public works involving transportation. Going back even further, we find that while still mayor of Wasilla, Palin successfully obtained a total of $27 million dollars for her town of about 8,000.
So much for the idea that Alaskans passively “respond to events but never control them.”
Why does this matter? Because understanding how willing the authors are to begin from a false starting point allows us to better assess how far afield of serious analysis they plan to take us. Indeed, throughout the article, one dubious narrative leads to another. Consider one final related example: the idea that Alaska politicians have an “ingrained frontier skepticism of authority — even one’s own.” That certainly doesn’t apply to Palin, who, as Wasilla’s mayor, reportedly threatened to fire a librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons, because she had refused to go along with a plan to censor library books at Palin’s whim. Anyone who argues that Alaska’s soon-to-be former governor is skeptical of authority is seeing what they want to see, not what’s in front of their eyes.
Fictions about American Politics
Many assessments of Palin’s relevancy with the voting public have hinged on her cultural appeal, and the Time piece is no different:
But for those who don’t get it, here’s a thumbnail sketch of her rightward appeal: For the pro-life movement, this cheerful mother of a Down-syndrome baby is a rousing affirmation. For the gun-rights movement, she’s a glamorous, moose-hunting shot of adrenaline. She hates on the media, never forgets the troops and is a walking middle finger to the BosNYWash élite. As Rush Limbaugh interrupted his vacation to declare, “She is going to continue to fire up people in the conservative Republican base as often as she speaks to them.”
Let’s set aside the fact that such assessments are simply stated without challenge; for example, apparently, there is a universal definition of “supporting the troops,” and Palin’s actions embody it. A question more relevant to an article about the governor’s political prospects is whether voters with priorities like these will become more or less prevalent in the years ahead.
Objective realities, such as the fact that Barack Obama was the choice of 66 percent of voters aged 18 to 29, seem to indicate that the answer is “no.” But Time draws the opposite conclusion. “Résumés ain’t what they used to be,” we are told. “[T]hey count only with people who trust credentials — a dwindling breed.” The authors imagine a future in which Palin “somehow channels this grim and possibly gathering sense that America’s institutions and authorities are no longer worthy of deference.” Without any sense of comparison, the piece notes that conservative commentator Glenn Beck’s most recent book is “selling like vampire lit” — a good thing, in this case.
All of these arguments are put forth in spite of the fact that nearly 70 million voters just “picked the lofty, cerebral liberal” for president, as the article concedes — a liberal with an exceptional Ivy League pedigree who ran a campaign focused on restoring faith and confidence in the government’s ability to tackle big problems.
Predictably, the essay soon attempts to advance a classic and easily disprovable conservative canard: that America is still a fundamentally conservative country wary of progressive ideas and programs:
A recent Gallup survey asked American adults whether they have become more conservative or more liberal in recent years, and the answer might suggest a bumpier road ahead for the Administration. Despite the Democratic sweep in 2008, “more conservative” prevailed 2 to 1. Being strong with the right is not a bad place for a woman of ambition to get started.
This often misinterpreted poll in and of itself proves only one thing: that more Americans think of themselves as conservative than think of themselves as liberal. This is the case largely because the terms themselves are fluid, as well as because the conservative onslaught against the liberal brand has been both relentless and effective. But when polled on an issue-by-issue basis, a clear majority of Americans support a wide array of progressive principles. While this reality isn’t hard to see, it is routinely ignored, as it was here, by those who are deliberately seeking to create a future tension-packed narrative that they can exploit for dramatic effect: Obama vs. Conservative America. That may be the stuff of summer movies, but it isn’t the stuff of serious political journalism.
Of course, building up the “Conservative America” side of that fight requires creating a fighter, and that’s exactly what Time is doing with articles like this one. No wonder, then, that Palin is quoted at length without any form of rebuttal, advocating what is deemed to be “a robust indictment of the Obama agenda.” An example:
“One thing reporters aren’t asking the Administration is … President Obama, how are you going to pay for this one- or two- or three-trillion-dollar health-care plan?”
It’s a transparently false statement, seeing as funding questions are routinely focused on by the press, but that fact isn’t mentioned by Time. And when she isn’t pushing the party line, the authors do it for her: “Suppose that the Obama Administration’s expansions of government don’t prove as popular — or successful — as Democrats hope,” they hypothesize. And again: “Democratic health-care proposals, [Palin] says, look increasingly like the ideas that McCain proposed during the campaign.”
By the time that Palin is allowed to pontificate on how President Obama’s “growth-of-government agenda needs to be ratcheted back,” there is no point in even asking if her assessment will be challenged. It won’t.
Fictions about Palin
Nor can we expect to receive any kind of serious evaluation of Palin herself.
To begin with, consider again the timing and premise of the article, pronounced so clearly by the image on the cover. This was written, after all, in response to the news that Palin is stepping down as governor of Alaska. We all know someone who has quit a job on principle. But elected officials are different. They are public servants, selected by the people to attempt to achieve a necessary set of goals. Nobody forced Sarah Palin to run for governor of Alaska. She chose to run, presumably because she felt that she could help her state. But now, we are being told that abandoning that responsibility and that trust makes her a renegade, instead of the opposite: an individual without the fortitude or commitment to see her work through when the going started to get tough. Many have rejected that logic — again, even conservatives. But not Time.
The article allows effusive praise to be heaped on Palin, rarely presenting a countervailing point of view. While conservative commentator Fred Barnes is mentioned as having “glumly” determined that Palin’s resignation has cost her a run for the White House, we are also regaled with the tale of the first meeting Barnes and William Kristol had with her. They are described as having been “delighted to have found a Republican fresh as a glacier breeze, seemingly tough as a sled dog, and unsullied by the internecine battles raging within the fracturing GOP.” Even her much-maligned resignation remarks were apparently a coup: “Sunlit against an Alaskan waterfront, it was as telegenic as her boffo acceptance speech.”
Investigations of Palin are portrayed as largely illegitimate, having “ranged from the bizarre … to the humiliating.” The only publication mentioned by name as having sent reporters to Alaska in order to investigate her past is the National Enquirer. Her assailants, in turn, are often pure political operatives. Credence is given to the view of Meg Stapleton, Palin’s spokeswoman, that, as the authors express it, “the anti-Palin offensive seems lifted straight from The Thumpin’, which describes the political strategies of Rahm Emanuel.” Indeed, they go even further, printing the governor’s argument that “enemies stirred up by her sudden prominence — and orchestrated, she believes, by the Obama White House — would bury her in unfounded ethics complaints.” No effort to investigate the veracity of this claim is made. What is more, the complaints themselves are painted as frivolous at best. “One complaint,” we are told, “was filed under a pseudonym borrowed from a British soap opera. Most were quickly dismissed.”
And, finally, if those behind what Time calls “silly-season attacks” aren’t vindictive Democratic politicos, then they’re simply clowns: “Despite rave reviews for her Republican National Convention speech, Palin soon became the target of late-night comics and snarky columnists.” No wonder, then, that she can’t help but respond when “the attack[s] involved family.” “In recent months,” the authors write, “she has been in an unseemly tussle with Levi Johnston,” not to mention her spat with David Letterman, after which “Palin demanded multiple apologies.”
All of this completely ignores a host of undeniable realities. First, Alaska is a state with serious corruption problems — so serious that Palin herself ran on a reformist platform. While Ted Stevens’ felony convictions were overturned this year because of prosecutorial misconduct, numerous other Alaska legislators and those associated with the state government have recently been convicted of crimes or are under investigation.
And while Palin has taken some praiseworthy steps in the name of responsible government, she is also dogged by well-deserved controversy. Her problematic involvement in the firing of Alaska state trooper Mike Wooten, her former brother-in law, was Exhibit A during the campaign. But beyond that, she has well-established difficulty telling the truth about her record. Combined with obvious examples of her questionable management style, it is impossible to argue that she shouldn’t be seriously investigated by legislators and journalists alike.
Nor is it true that only tabloids and comedians are after her. The New Yorker, The New York Times, the Associated Press, The Washington Post, CNN, and numerous other major news outlets sent reporters to her home state during the campaign to assess the validity of the accusations she faced. Extensive reporting was also, of course, provided by the Anchorage Daily News.
And regarding her supposed righteous defensiveness when her family is insulted: Well, it should be easy to see that Palin played the fabricated Letterman controversy for all the publicity it was worth — not the reaction one would expect from a parent seeking to keep her family out of the news.
A Duty Unmet
The September 2008 New Yorker article linked to above mentioned a conversation between Time‘s Washington bureau chief and Nicolle Wallace, who was then a spokeswoman for the McCain campaign. As the magazine tells it:
On a talk show, the Washington bureau chief of Time told Nicole [sic] Wallace … that it was still unclear whether Palin was ready “to answer tough questions about domestic policy, foreign policy.” Wallace laughed. “Like from who? From you?” And she asked, “Who cares if she can talk to Time magazine?”
This shows the kind of reverence Time still commands. The McCain campaign was, by its own admission, “not about the issues.” And, so, its top people thought that it should steer clear of hard-hitting journalism.
But articles like “The Outsider” make such caution appear to be either a misjudgment or a rouse, indeed, flipping the question on its head: not why would Palin talk to Time, but why wouldn’t she?
Time has a circulation of more than 525,000. It has nearly 1.9 million readers, and its stories are covered by countless other publications and news programs. It is a platform most political commentators and analysts can only dream of. The magazine has, therefore, an immense responsibility — and an immense opportunity — to provide serious journalism to the public. “The Outsider” is an example of the opposite: faulty reasoning and superficial reporting packaged as edgy analysis, all done in the name of entertainment, not investigation. It’s a story that has become all too common.
The article is also a perfect example of how conservatives work to exploit the “liberal media” that Palin has made such a point of deriding. The strategy is simple: attack with one hand, infiltrate with the other. Unfortunately, that’s just politics. But it doesn’t mean the media needs to go along with it. Rather, it has a duty to the public to resist, and to maintain the objectivity and seriousness of a truly free press.
“Cut loose from her obligations to her huge and awesome homeland,” Time concludes, “[Palin’s] message remains quintessentially Alaskan. Where she comes from — the last American frontier — the past is irrelevant, the rules are suspended, and limitations are for losers.”
That may define the psychological landscape of some residents of Alaska, but it shouldn’t describe the landscape of the American media.
Media Matter for America