It could be that I’ve started to perceive the world solely in the bold, red headlines of HuffPo, but I certainly didn’t think the story from Sarah Palin’s ABC interview was that she thinks she’s “ready.” But apparently, The Times’ Jim Rutenberg felt that was pretty crucial, since he spends his first four paragraphs recounting Sarah’s declaration of fitness. Though we hear a bit about her Bush Doctrine “stumble” 200 words in, it’s not until nearly two-thirds of the way through the piece that Rutenberg shares the embarrassing play-by-play.
When I learned about the notorious buried lede, it seemed like a style mistake. But after reading about what the Internet is doing to our brains, this seems like an egregious abdication of responsibility by Rutenberg to orient the story around such a trite part of the interview. The Bush Doctrine is not an obscure piece of foreign policy jargon. Our dear leader’s vacuous statement of purpose has caused untold damage to the world; this is from the new york post, not the journal of foreign affairs. In my reading, Palin’s lack of awareness is bigger than her saber rattling towards Russia, her full-throated support for israel right-or-wrong, and her belief that the Iraq war is a mission from god.
So how do we evaluate The Times’ coverage? I frequently find that The Times’ efforts to balance their coverage devolve into fruitless attempts to lose the designation as a liberal rag. Instead of ideologically evening the ship, Times coverage and news judgement often go too far. Short of a Murdoch purchase, there is little The Times can do to win Bill O’Reilly’s heart. More than ever, the recent spate of outright lies from the McCain camp demand an active, responsible, vigorous fourth estate. The abdication of responsibility from the mainstream media allows this to continue with coverage bland enough to earn headlines like “Campaigns Trade Barbs Over Obama Lipstick Comment.” This isn’t fact checking, it’s score keeping.
MSNBC is in the midst of another struggle for “balance” and ethics in a changing media landscape. No one is sure how to maintain both standards and audiences, how to keep pressure on discourse without facing a boycott, how to serve the public interest while remembering the state of media ownership. I can’t throw my full support behind Olbermann – because a distinction between editorial commentary and news is still important at any news organization – but I can’t help but be grabbed by the audacity of his Special Comments. After years of seething anger belonging to the conservatives in a time when the right has been exposed as thoroughly wrong, Olbermann’s commentary is a televised moment of poitical jouissance. Palin’s stage-managed poise reflects her experience as the second runner-up at the 1984 Miss Alaska Pageant and is a strong, spectacular defense against Charlie Gibson’s energetic examination. The performance makes it difficult to remember that she’s shanking the responses to entry-level foreign policy questions. For the television viewer, this recital of authenticity was a powerful simulacrum that thoroughly veiled her thin biographical experience; proximity to Russia and one intercontinental voyage (in 2007). Youtube and cable news will concentrate the Nixon/Kennedy debate effect, except this time no one’s listening on the radio.
This is why it so important for The Times to shape up. It’s fortunate that McCain played the Nixon to Palin’s Kennedy on The View today. But without a strong, candid voice in print, our only hope might be for the Matthews-Olbermann team to get mad as hell. If they don’t, people are just going to keep taking it.