With some regularity, this column excoriates the mainstream news media for all sorts of continued idiocy in the way it conducts its business. But every once in a while, we have to applaud them when they get something right. This week, Dana Milbank of The Washington Post deserves mentioning, for pledging to stay Palin-free for the month of February. Details on this in a moment.
It's rare for members of the media to perform such self-examination (and self-criticism). Especially when examining their own culpability in creating a situation. Much like vapid celebrities who are "famous for being famous" (the Paris Hiltons and Kardashians of the world), Sarah Palin is without a doubt the most famous Republican in the land -- and has been ever since John McCain announced her selection as running mate in 2008. Why this continues to be so is kind of mystifying. Palin isn't even in public office anymore, and yet the entire media world waits with bated breath for any tweet or Facebook posting from Mama Grizzly Central -- and then treats it as a major, major story immediately upon receipt. Think about it -- what other political figure in your memory has had their election "picks" tracked by major national newspapers during an election cycle (an election which Palin wasn't even directly participating in any way other than casting a ballot, it bears mentioning)? None that I can name. What other out-of-work politician is elevated to the same level as the president during a national event, as Palin was with her speech on the Arizona tragedy? Again, none that I can name.
Sarah Palin is not responsible for this. The media is. Because they just can't get enough of her, whether they love her or hate her. Dana Milbank examines this, with a slightly snarky spin:
Though it is embarrassing to admit this in public, I can no longer hide the truth. I have a Sarah Palin problem.
I have written about her in 42 columns since Sen. John McCain picked her as his presidential running mate in 2008. I've mentioned her in dozens more blog posts, Web chats, and TV and radio appearances. I feel powerless to control my obsession, even though it cheapens and demeans me.
But today is the first day of the rest of my life. And so, I hereby pledge that, beginning on Feb 1, 2011, I will not mention Sarah Palin -- in print, online or on television -- for one month. Furthermore, I call on others in the news media to join me in this pledge of a Palin-free February. With enough support, I believe we may even be able to extend the moratorium beyond one month, but we are up against a powerful compulsion, and we must take this struggle day by day.
I came to this inner strength by trusting in a power greater than myself: my former Washington Post colleague Howie Kurtz, now with the Daily Beast. A week ago, on his CNN show, "Reliable Sources," I was complaining about the over-coverage of Palin when I found myself saying that "the best thing would be -- it's impossible, of course -- that we in the media should declare some sort of a Sarah Palin moratorium."
It's impossible, I figured, because Palin is a huge source of cheap Web clicks, television ratings and media buzz. If any of us refused to partake of her Facebook candy or declined to use her as blog bait, we would be sending millions of Web surfers, readers, viewers and listeners to our less scrupulous competitors.
The media obsession with Palin began naturally and innocently enough, when the Alaska governor emerged as an electrifying presence on the Republican presidential ticket more than two years ago. But then something unhealthy happened: Though Palin was no longer a candidate, or even a public official, we in the press discovered that the mere mention of her name could vault our stories onto the most-viewed list. Palin, feeding this co-dependency and indulging the news business's endless desire for conflict, tweeted provocative nuggets that would help us keep her in the public eye -- so much so that this former vice presidential candidate gets far more coverage than the actual vice president.
We need help.
Snark aside, though, Milbank makes an excellent point. The media are the heart of the problem. If Palin were some other politician -- more boring, less sexy, perhaps -- the media wouldn't obsess over her so much. And if the media weren't obsessing over her so much, then the public would soon relegate her to a much more reasonable level of importance than she now occupies.
But, like I said, it is rare for anyone in the media to come out and admit such things. Which is why it's worth mentioning here.
I won't be signing Milbank's "Palin-Free Month Pledge," though. Who knows... Palin might actually do something newsworthy next month. Cute as the "pledge" is, it is an overreaction. The national news media used to have an editorial system, where stories were rejected by saner and wiser editors because they were deemed "not newsworthy." This has been completely replaced by a new standard -- is the story entertaining enough to air? Stories deemed too boring get put on the spike. Stories with a funny video clip -- that are so far removed from the concept of "newsworthiness" that they're not even on the same planet -- are run endlessly throughout the day. Sarah Palin knows this, and knows how to feed into it. Instead of an editorial board saying, "Who cares what this has-been politician has to say?" they measure Palin on the scale of how controversial she can be, and how theatrical she is while doing so.
So, like I said, while the Milbank story is amusing, I won't be signing such a pledge myself. If Sarah Palin truly does something worth the time of my readers, then I don't want to be handcuffed -- I will write about it. But I would encourage everyone in the mediaverse to also realize when Sarah Palin is "playing" them -- and refuse to give in to the urge to be a patsy. I completely ignored Palin's "blood libel" speech, because I deemed it nothing more than a shiny object (or "media catnip," take your pick) which didn't rise to the level of being noticed. If more in the media would develop and use such a filter when considering taking Sarah Palin's bait, then it wouldn't matter what month it was, because Palin stories would be measured by whether they were actually news or not. And there'd be a lot less Palin stories as a result. Outside of Fox News, of course.
There were a few Democrats last week who deserve Honorable Mentions, which is always a good sign.
Senator Joe Lieberman gets an Honorable Mention for following in the footsteps of former senator (from Connecticut) Chris Dodd, and realizing early on what the polls were telling him. In both Dodd's and Lieberman's cases, the polls were saying: "You're toast!" But some politicians refuse to hear this message, and by running a doomed re-election campaign, hand their seat over to the opposition party rather than make way for a successor from their own party. Because Lieberman announced he will not be running in 2012, he may save his Senate seat for the Democrats, for which he deserves thanks.
Representative Anthony Weiner was the most entertaining voice from the Democratic side of the House in last week's pointless vote on repealing the new healthcare reform law. Since Alan Grayson is no longer in the House, Weiner will likely emerge as the go-to guy for amusing quotes in the next two years. For now, he will have to settle for an Honorable Mention.
The House Blue Dog Democrats (the ones who are left, at any rate) also deserve a nod, because they didn't defect en masse and jump on the Republican "repeal" bandwagon. Only three Democrats voted with the Republicans last week -- seven fewer than voted against the healthcare bill last year. If a large number of Democrats had defected, the news would have been spun much differently, so the Blue Dogs who stayed on board get their own Honorable Mention.
But the coveted Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week this week goes to the Democratic group Third Way and to Senator Mark Udall from Colorado, for their novel idea to have both parties in Congress sit in a co-mingled fashion for the upcoming State of the Union speech. Third Way apparently came up with the idea, and Udall got the ball rolling with a letter -- which now has 60 signatures (and counting).
Since the advent of television, the coverage of the annual speech given by the president to a joint session of Congress (as well as all-but-one members of the Cabinet, and whichever Supreme Court justices show up) has deteriorated into nothing more than a circus act. News organizations have taken to reporting more on the stats than the substance of the speech, as if watching a baseball game: "The president had 74 standing ovations -- 51 from his own party and 23 from the other side of the aisle..." The audience members are graded on how many times they leap up and applaud, how long they applaud, and how eagerly their initial leap to their feet is made. The whole thing has become not just ridiculous, but downright farcical. In other words, you can easily picture what Jonathan Swift would have had to say about it, had he included it in Gulliver's Travels.
The whole circus atmosphere stems directly from the fact that, during this speech, "the aisle" isn't metaphorical but literal. Democrats sit on one side of the central walkway, Republicans on the other. This way, the cameras can easily see who is applauding and who is glaringly sitting mute.
Udall's plan would change all of this. If the audience were mixed on both sides of the aisle, then it'd be almost impossible to track such stats. Which would refocus the attention on the speech, instead of on the audience.
Which is an impressive idea. What makes it even better is that seating is voluntary anyway -- so no law would have to pass nor rule change effected in order to try something new. For having and pushing this idea to remove the circus atmosphere from the State of the Union speech, both Third Way and Mark Udall are this week's Most Impressive Democrats Of The Week.
For the second week in a row, we are not awarding a Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week this week. Last week, it was mostly out of deference to the somber nature of the week after the Tucson tragedy, but this week we find that no Democrat truly annoyed us enough to be mentioned.
Now, we'll fully admit, this could be because we missed something. Some embarassing story about some monumentally stupid thing said or done by a prominent Democrat may have been out there, and we just didn't hear about it.
So feel free to point out what we missed in the comments. Because, as far as we can see right now, no Democrats disappointed us at all last week.
Volume 152 (1/21/11)
OK, before we begin here, I have to address something that I've noticed recently. The mainstream media has apparently had a grammatical/stylistic meeting (that I was not invited to), and decreed that a member of the Tea Party should be called a "Tea Partyer." Now, I take exception to this, because it is silly. The correct term (which I've been using for over a year now) should be "Tea Partier." Until recently, the media did not even deign to use the personal form of "Tea Party" at all, and the jury is still out among the mainstream media on the question of capitalization.
But I've been consistently capitalizing both Tea Party and Tea Partier, and consistently dropping the "Y" in the second term. Which I will continue to do, even in the face of the editorial universe deciding to go a different direction.
Hrrmph. So there.
Enough of that, though, let's get on with this week's talking points. Normally, these are offered up for the benefit of Democratic politicians about to appear on the weekend political chatfest shows, but next week is going to be dominated (in the political word) by the president's speech. So, instead, I'm offering up some pure spin this week -- themes Democrats can use in post-speech interviews, which could help Democrats frame a few issues to their advantage.
Of course, the actual content of the speech is unknown at this point, so we're necessarily going to have to be somewhat vague here. Feel free, as always, to leave suggestions of your own in the comments.
The adult in the room
This could be a theme Obama and the Democrats can use to subtly undermine the view that the public has of congressional Republicans, for the next two years. The Republicans have already begun overreaching, in terms of prioritizing their agenda, and there are a few giant tantrums in the very near future as well (on raising the debt ceiling, for instance). So reinforce the comparison.
"President Obama certainly looked like the adult in the room tonight. Rather than stooping to partisan gamesmanship, his priority is making America better by rationally discussing what we can do to solve our problems. I think in the coming months the difference between Obama addressing things in a calm, adult manner and the Republicans is going to become more and more noticeable and pronounced. Obama showed tonight that he is more interested in an adult outlook than in playing partisan schoolyard games."
Obama's on a roll
The media have begrudgingly begun to pick up on this, but it needs to be spotlighted by Democrats often.
"Have you noticed President Obama's poll ratings recently? Since mid-December, Obama's really been on a roll. Conventional wisdom would seem to say that after a 'shellacking' in an election, the president's poll numbers would have gone down. Instead, they've jumped significantly and still show signs of growing. Obama truly has gotten his second wind and the American public has registered its approval."
Republican honeymoon over before it began
Point out the converse, as well.
"Boy, the Republican 'honeymoon' period with the public seems to be over before it even began. As congressional Republicans begin squabbling among themselves over how extreme their agenda will be -- instead of focusing on job creation and other high priorities with the public -- I expect the public will soon let them know that their so-called 'mandate' isn't nearly as strong or wide as they thought it was."
Jobs jobs jobs
This one's obvious, and Democrats already show signs of realizing they need to hammer this point home.
"Republicans in Congress seem to be tackling every issue in sight except the one the American people care most about: jobs, jobs, jobs. Have you heard of any job creation plans the Republicans have come up with yet? Because I sure haven't. Republicans need to set their priorities a little differently, and put jobs front and center. They'll have plenty of time for grandstanding on hot-button issues later, but for now Democrats would appreciate it if we could start talking about what to do on the jobs front."
Improve it, don't repeal it
This one is so obvious that I'd be willing to bet that some form of it makes it into Obama's speech.
"Republicans decided their first order of business in the House was to repeal the healthcare law we passed last year. They ran on a promise of 'repeal and replace,' but so far they haven't agreed on any plan to replace it. Instead, they're going to end all the positive aspects of the healthcare law and replace it with nothing. I say to them: let's work together, and improve the healthcare law where it needs improvement. But repealing it and replacing it with nothing should not be seen as an option. Are the Republicans serious about improving healthcare in America, or are they only interested in meaningless partisan games?"
Saving hundreds of millions
OK, this one is specific, rather than a generic State of the Union response. Because it deserves pointing out.
"Democrats passed a repeal of the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy in the military, and now it looks like it is going to save hundreds of millions of dollars. A new report just came out showing that over the past few years, this policy has cost the American taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars. Any Republican who says they're for deficit reduction should have supported this repeal, but once again they put partisan ideology ahead of actually saving the government some money."
This gets back to my initial point about Palin and the media. Representative Michele Bachmann has announced she will be doing her own "rogue" rebuttal to President Obama's speech this week, which will air via Tea Party website immediately after the president speaks. This is media catnip, so we'll see who ignores it and shows the real Republican response by Paul Ryan, and who goes with Bachmann -- just in case she says something provocative and amusing.
"I'm sorry, but what did you just ask? I heard the president's speech to Congress, and the Republican response, but you're asking me about one Republican House member's attempt at grabbing some of the spotlight? To which I can only respond: Michele who?"
-- Chris Weigant