On Friday, Debra Saunders, the conservative columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, responded to my Sarah Palin profile with a column suggesting that the media and blogosphere are mostly to blame for Palin's downfall. I have seen that charge put forward by a number of Palin partisans and it strikes me as a particularly weak one, so I wanted to respond to it. Here's Sanders:
Like Green, I see serious flaws in Palin's make-up. ...But I believe the media feeding frenzy that followed McCain's selection of Palin as his running mate distorted her as a human being in a fundamental way. And it affected the tenor of the McCain campaign.
When McCain picked Palin, his campaign team thought the media would hail Palin as a fellow maverick, a moderate who could work with Democrats, and avoided polarizing social issues by, for example, vetoing a bill banning benefits for same-sex spouses of state workers. That is, Camp McCain expected the sort of in-depth look that Green provided in "The Tragedy of Sarah Palin."
They also thought that personal profiles would portray Palin as a pro-life Republican who walked the walk when she chose to give birth to a son with Down syndrome.
Alas and woe to her, Palin had the misfortune of walking onto the national stage in the era of the blogosphere. A Daily Kos blogger charged that Palin faked giving birth to Trig five months earlier in order to conceal her teenage daughter Bristol's pregnancy. Other bloggers, as well as British and Australian newspapers, joined the pile-on. That rumor was put to rest for all but the most ardent Palin "birthers" when Bristol turned out to be five months pregnant.
While most reputable American news outlets did not report the rumors, the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz wrote at the time that reporters deluged the campaign with questions "about the governor's amniotic fluid, the timing of her contractions and whether she would take a DNA test to establish the baby's parentage." Those questions enraged the McCainiacs.
Palin's record as governor also went through the dirt washer.
There are two problems with this way of thinking. First, it imputes far too much power to the media generally and bloggers specifically. We in the press would love to believe that we're possessed of god-like powers to smite those candidates who displease us. But c'mon, that's just silly. Although not nearly as silly as the idea that internet conspiracies about Trig Palin had any bearing on the outcome. I can count on one hand the prominent people who pushed these conspiracies; none managed to push them into the mainstream media, a point Saunders tacitly concedes by having to cite "British and Australian newspapers" to make her case rather than the American newspapers that U.S. voters read (or don't read, sigh).
That leads to the other problem with Saunders's thesis: its implication that the media was somehow unfair in its coverage of Palin. This has always struck me as a laughable charge coming from her admirers because they'd like you to believe that Palin is, on the one hand, the dauntless Mama Grizzly destined to reclaim her country from the elites, while on the other hand being unfairly victimized by some weenie with a notebook asking tough questions. Leaving aside the fact that the media's job is to ask tough questions of potential national leaders, Palin's problems with the press stemmed mostly from her refusal to engage with it, or at least with its non-Fox News components. When she did engage, it was disastrous. Not because of any nefarious conspiracy to put her through "the dirt washer," but because she was flummoxed by such simple questions as, "What do you read?"