Palin’s Book and Obama’s Bow: A Media Week to Forget

Eric Boehlert

by Eric Boehlert

Ugh, what a gruesome week it was for news consumers as the "serious" press showered time and attention on two GOP-friendly stories that defined "trivial pursuits": a book release and a bow. Sadly, this is what the Beltway press corps now voluntarily — eagerly — reduces itself to: chasing pointless, vacuous "news" stories that are literally of no consequence.

Why? Because the book and bow represented the easy, lazy, and safe thing to do last week. And among media elites, those remain three irresistible forces. (Raise your hand if you heard even one insightful comment about Sarah Palin amidst the TV cacophony last week.) That, along with the media’s tradition of acquiescing to whatever production/distraction the GOP Noise Machine is cooking up, ensured the book and bow were elevated to breaking news status. Meaning, if it’s a big deal to Drudge and Limbaugh and Beck and Malkin — if they’re all cheering it (Palin’s book) or if they’re all screaming about it (President Obama’s bow) — it must be news. In reality, of course, that’s an awful way to run a newsroom assignment desk. But more and more producers and editors are gladly abdicating their responsibilities.

Not that long ago, serious journalists routinely ignored the noisemakers on the fringe, confident in their own ability to identify the news. Now, many inside the Beltway not only refuse to ignore the right-wing fringe, they look to it expectantly for "news" leads and soon find themselves filing pointless stories about whether the president’s bow to the Japanese emperor was too deep. Or inappropriate. Or whatever the haters were carping about. (Of course, in news accounts, the unhinged haters are dressed up as Obama "critics.")

Not only did we see monumentally misguided decisions in obsessing over Palin’s book release and even acknowledging the manufactured controversy of Obama’s bow, but lots of the actual coverage was just atrocious. ABC News, in particular, seemed to embarrass itself in this regard.

Sitting down for a softball session with Palin, ABC’s Barbara Walters asked her if it was Obama who lied about the health reform "death panels." Of course, as the whole world (minus Walters) knows, it was Palin who manufactured the universally debunked "death panel" smear this summer. But on ABC, Walters wanted to know if Obama was lying when he claimed death panels did not exist. Walters then allowed Palin to claim Obama had been "disingenuous" about the whole thing. (Welcome to Bizarro World.)

Meanwhile, for the utterly pointless tale of Obama’s bow, ABC’s Jake Tapper published an anonymous email from a "friend" (I kid you not) who claimed to be an expert on the Japanese Empire, and who mocked the president’s bend-at-the-waist greeting. And yes, that represented the entirety of Tapper’s "reporting" on the topic for that post. (BTW, Tapper’s friend was dead wrong in his analysis, according to lots of named experts in Japanese culture and protocol.)

So yes, it was a media week to forget as the press covered the wrong stories, poorly.

My favorite headline from Palin Week, and the one that perfectly captured the absurdity of the media’s purposeful overkill, came courtesy of Talking Points Memo, as it recapped the latest batch of (dismal) public polling data about the former Alaska governor:

Poll: Even Conservatives Don’t Want Palin Running For President

What we learned from the pointless orgy of Palin news coverage last week is that the D.C. press corps has a very firm grasp on the obvious. Yes, Palin is a polarizing figure and yes, she might run for president in 2012. But honestly, did the cable channels and networks really have to mention "Palin" more than 1,700 times last week to make that blindingly obvious point. (That’s the tally, according to TVeyes.) The news media’s response to Palin’s book was, of course, comically disproportionate to the supposed news surrounding it, or even surrounding her political status for that matter.

Based solely on her standing in the polls, Palin is the Dan Quayle of 2009. (She’s the proud owner of a 23 percent favorable rating — 23 percent.) So why do the media treat her as a rising superstar? Why, for instance, did The Washington Post insist on publishing dueling Going Rogue book reviews, an absurd editorial decision since the book itself was the definition of lightweight. ("It’s definitely not a policy book and it’s not going to change minds about her." And that was from a fan.)

The Palin book release story itself was built on empty, useless calories. Two or three weeks from now, nobody is going to remember (or need to remember) anything that transpired during Palin Week, because virtually nothing noteworthy happened. But journalists sure did their best to justify the madness.

The Washington Post’s Michael Shear claimed that "there seems to be an insatiable demand from our audience — liberals and conservatives — and at the end of the day we have to, and should, respond to that." At Politico, Ben Smith explained Palin drives traffic and besides, "she’s a great story and a pretty important political figure." And writing on The New York Times’ Op-Ed page, a local Alaska journalist, Michael Carey, claimed, "The nation made [Palin] a celebrity."

The nation? Really? I’d say the press has made Palin a celebrity, while for the last year the nation has shrugged its collective shoulders.

Is there any evidence that since last November a large numbers of Americans who are not white evangelicals (Palin’s most supportive base) and are not professional journalists (Palin’s second-most supportive base), really care about what Sarah Palin thinks or says? I certainly haven’t seen any proof to support that media’s working assumption of Palin "mania." Yes, I understand she’s selling lots of books this week. But thanks to the avalanche of free publicity, it would be shocking if she didn’t move hundreds of thousands of units. (It’s almost impossible to calculate how much free publicity the press generated for Palin’s book with its blanketed, mass media coverage, but if pressed I’d guess the news media delivered at least $30 million worth of free marketing for HarperCollins.) But is there any larger proof that Palin, who remains perennially unpopular across the country, is in any way a political force?

I’ll bet five bucks that when the Pew Research numbers come out this week we’ll see a massive disconnect in terms of the amount of time journalists dedicated (i.e. wasted) to the Palin story, and the microscopic percentage of news consumers who listed the Palin book launch as the story they paid the most attention to last week. Instead, once again it will be the economy or health care that top the list because (surprise!) that’s what matters to people. Beltway parlor games, and especially pointless ones involving Palin, are of no interest to most news consumers.

Speaking of disconnect, we saw it on full display with regards to the non-story of Obama’s bow in Japan. And what we learned from the bow kerfuffle is that the press is still unwilling to ignore the trumped-up charges that the GOP Noise Machine concocts everyday in its incessant, hateful campaign against the president. (For the media, right-wing anger = news.) I had hoped journalists learned a valuable lesson in September, when mainstream outlets took seriously, and even eagerly hyped, the far-right’s pre-emptive, hysterical claim that Obama was going to indoctrinate American students into his socialist agenda when he spoke to them via satellite. In the end, though, the press looked just as foolish as the Obama haters when the president delivered his speech and simply urged students to excel in class and stay in school.

Unfortunately, the bow charade proved once again the press still cannot resist the right-wing’s siren song. The press cannot turn away from the loud, fringe shouts, even when those shouts revolve around utter trivia, and when those knee-jerk shouts are about a story that can easily be answered with the question, "Who cares?" As in, who cares if some people online didn’t like the angle of Obama’s greeting?

The sad truth is that the press is still way too impressed with the right-wing shouts and still capitulates to them, and then dutifully translates those shouts into "news" with coverage that seems purposefully dumbed down in order to avoid bringing news consumers to the obvious conclusion that the Obama-hating allegation being "debated" that day is absurd. Or, to avoid bringing news consumers to the equally obvious conclusion that the allegation being "debated" raised more questions about critics making it (i.e. what is wrong with these people?), than it did their target.

And, oh yeah, the disconnect: A sweeping majority of Americans approved of Obama’s bow. And even a majority of Republicans thought it was the right thing to do.

The press should have ignored the bow nonsense and left it to the Obama haters. Just like the press should have put an early cap on its Palin coverage. When is that liberal media going to learn?

Source: Media Matters for America