Letting the Media Do Our Thinking: An Excerpt from 'Bring Her Down'

My book, ‘Bring Her Down’: How the American Media Tried to Destroy Sarah Palin, has just been released. The following is adapted from Chapter 7 of the book.

In the event of a possible Palin presidential run, it remains to be seen whether the media can pull off the same act with the same success twice. At first glance it would seem obvious that they can, because of the head start they’ve already given themselves. To a large extent, they’ve already made her into a political punchline. Millions of voters would be coming to this hypothetical race with a set of preconceptions about Palin that would be very hard to shake.

There are those–including many conservatives–who insist that Palin can never run for national office again because she was so effectively “Dan Quayled” by the media. It’s an image, they argue, that can’t be overcome. There’s something unsettling, though, about the idea that any politician–or any person–should resign himself or herself to being defined for all time by what the media says, particularly by the kind of grotesque caricature they created of Sarah Palin. In a way it’s even worse than the “It’s her own fault” meme that was used against her so many times: when her e-mail account was hacked, when her children were mocked, and so on. That meme at least assumed that she had a little bit of control over her own fate; the “She got Quayled and that’s it” meme suggests that the best thing that a political candidate damaged by the media can do is bow her head meekly and submit to her ordained fate.

On the other hand, in the process of creating those preconceptions, the media may have unwittingly thrown a few advantages Palin’s way. A good deal of what they did during the 2008 race was simply crying wolf: spreading rumors and making insinuations about her that were either untrue or grossly exaggerated. It may have begun to sink into voters’ minds that more often than not, after the media has begun proclaiming yet another Palin scandal, nothing really happens. The supposed lies and cover-ups about her family; the ethics complaints; the charges of incitement to racism, hatred, and violence–all of these and more have had a disquieting tendency to evaporate when seriously pursued.

It’s just possible, in fact, that the media may have created the perfect immune system for their least favorite candidate in any future election in which she might run. Crying wolf too many times can mean that, the next time you do it, people simply refuse to listen any more. After all that transpired in 2008, how many voters would uncritically swallow once again every half-baked scandal that the media served up? Certainly many would–but it’s likely that many others would not.

And there’s another angle to this as well. Voters watched as Barack Obama was built up by his adorers in the media into some sort of glittering idol. Only a few months after his inauguration, if sliding poll numbers were any indication, the idol was already starting to totter.

Robert Guest remarked on this at the Economist’s Lexington column in late July 2009:

“All presidential candidates promise more than they can possibly deliver. This sets them up for failure. But because the Obama cult has stoked expectations among its devotees to such unprecedented heights, he is especially likely to disappoint. [Scholar and author Gene] Healy predicts that he will end up as a failed president, and ‘possibly the least popular of the modern era’. It is up to Mr Obama to prove him wrong.”

Human societies generally have to keep learning the same lessons over and over, and have a depressing tendency to learn those lessons incompletely or not at all. But if Obama’s carefully constructed and polished image should continue to deteriorate, and if Sarah Palin should run soon enough after the last election for people to remember how abjectly the media fawned over Obama, the American electorate may remember some of the lessons of 2008, and the lack of media fawning that there would be over her might not be seen as such a bad thing. Voters burned by the idolization of one candidate might be extra wary of anyone who gets too much adulation the next time around. Also, what many people have started to see as Obama’s continuing overexposure and the media’s willingness to contribute to that–from his repeated primetime press conferences to the ubiquity of his image in pop art, television shows, and even advertisements–might tap into the rebellious streak in human nature that has a tendency to finally turn against anyone who is praised too highly or is seen as seeking too much applause.

As Ben Voth wrote in American Thinker, “According to the current commentators, all of the events since August 2008 are some sort of confused nightmare from which we in the electorate can now awaken and come to our senses. Nothing really happened since there was not a ‘real’ candidate in Governor Palin. For some in the politically elite class, such absurd rationalizations will work, but for a sizable component of the public who saw in Palin their own cultural and political fortunes, these comments will serve as further fuel for their partisan fires.” No matter how the media happens to feel about the opinions or the intellectual capacity of Palin supporters, this is a fact they will have to take into account in covering any future Palin campaign.

In the end, it all comes down to one question: Is the American electorate willing to let the American media think for them, make their decisions for them, and instruct them on how to vote and why, from now on? If Sarah Palin’s campaign for vice president and the media’s battle to “bring her down” has taught us anything, it is this: On the answer to that question hangs our country’s future.

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