Palin vs. the Press

By Michael Gerson - June 14, 2011

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At the beginning, Palin was given plenty of reasons for grievance. After her selection as John McCain's running mate, some in the press focused unkind attention on her family and faith. From a human perspective, her defensive reaction was understandable. In a memorable convention speech, Palin returned a volley of fist-shaking populism. On the campaign trail, huge Republican crowds -- far larger than McCain generally drew -- rewarded Palin's feistiness. It was the heartland (including the tundra) against the coasts; real Americans against the elites. Following the election, a procession of radio and cable appearances further simplified and purified Palin's persona. Positive reinforcement had done its predictable work. The candidate became a caricature. The caricature became a celebrity.

This transformation would be easier for the media to criticize if it did not frequently fall for the same temptation. Audiences for blogs, radio talk shows and cable television tend to reward ringing reassertions of their own certainties. It is not just politicians who build a following with predictable, partisan arguments, vividly expressed. Simplicity is salable. Doubt and complexity are not. Extreme statements attract attention. Soon they predominate. Eventually they define. A pose becomes a brand. A mask becomes a face.

For evidence, it is necessary to go no further than Palin's most persistent critics in the media. It is one thing to disagree with Palin's approach and policy views. It is another to pursue an Ahab-like obsession across endless oceans of emails. And it is another thing to aim a harpoon at her family, which is indeed flippin' unbelievable.

Modern politics has become a vast Pavlovian experiment. New technologies and media outlets provide immediate positive and negative reinforcement. The blogs buzz, the ratings come in, the hits are counted. A public official who reads the press too closely finds a following in attacking it. Elements of the press find an audience in criticizing her relentlessly. Reflexes become conditioned. People salivate on cue.

In Palin versus the press, neither side has acquitted itself particularly well. Palin became a less sympathetic figure than she once was. The media managed to undermine a low reputation. Their codependence exposes our political culture to ridicule. But it makes for good television.

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Copyright 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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