Sunday, June 5, 2011

Sarah Palin's one-finger salute

Sarah Palin is having a good laugh at the expense of the media, and the New York Times' Mark Leibovich is laughing with her:

I’m all for political people extending every courtesy to us poor, pampered media types. The predictability afforded by such courtesies is often our friend, especially with a deadline looming. But as someone who has consumed —and contributed to — a massive body of predictable campaign coverage over the years, I find something refreshing about the “winging it” approach. And it was instructive to see the media so disoriented upon being deprived of the familiar setups, set-pieces and bubble-like environments of a modern presidential campaign.

I'm no fan of Palin, and I don't share her apparent contempt for the mainstream media. (I say "apparent" because much of her barbs at the "lamestream" media are simply political theater.) But I can see where she's coming from. She's taking a swipe at the sense of entitlment that some reporters and news outlets have regarding the way that large organizations and public figures share information with the public.

Last year I attended a presentation by Tom McMillan, vice president for communications with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He recounted with some amusement how a reporter once complained to the Professional Hockey Writers Association that the Penguins had broken news on the team's own blog rather than feeding it first to the media. The Pens have a devoted and plugged-in fanbase that doesn't care whether it gets news about the team from the source or from the filter or sports writers. In fact, many hockey fans probably prefer getting news straight from the team. A failure to understand that reality is why the media has been slow to adjust to the changes wrought by the Internet and social media.

And guess what? Tom McMillan knows that, aggrieved or not, hockey writers aren't going to stop covering the Penguins just because they now have to compete with the team's own PR operation. So it is with Sarah Palin. Despite all the media's kvetching, they still end up covering her, and she's probably banking on it, as Leibovich notes. The rest of us aren't so lucky. We have to play by the rules if we want our clients and employers to get covered by the mainstream media, and most of us still value that coverage. Many of us cling to those rules as much as reporters and editors do. They bring order and predictability to what we do.

As Leibovich explains, Mitt Romney is clearly in this camp. His team orchestrated a classic campaign kick-off announcement, and it seemed to achieve the desired results. I'd go so far as to say that Palin's ham-fisted attempt to upstage him worked in Romney's favor. Yes, it was a reminder that he doesn't possess her outsized influence, but it also made him seem sympathetic. For a guy who seems so blow-dried and calculating, he seemed human for an instant.

The dilemma that Palin faces is the same one I described in this blog last year. She's still a cult brand, and she hasn't seemed to figure out how to expand her appeal without alienating her base -- or else has no interesting in doing so, something that conservatives are taking note of disapprovingly. It's only a few months to the first primaries. Rivals like Romney soon will figure out they don't have to worry about being upstaged by Palin. All they'll have to do is run out the clock.

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