The Reading Room

Pusillanimous Palin

A new rule was confirmed this US election season: the more conservative and combative a candidate, the more unwilling they were to put themselves in front of an independent journalist. Why risk an unscripted situation, have your inconsistencies probed or face awkward questions about your past when you can guarantee an easy ride on Conservative Talk Radio or Fox News? And, though liberals get angry, there appeared to be no immediate downside to this strategy for Conservative candidates. The mainstream networks, cowed by Fox’s power, were strangely muted in their criticism. Since they are desperate for access they’re not getting, they end up showing clips of these Conservatives being given soft-pedal interviews on Fox.

Sharron Angle, the Nevada Tea-party Candidate, was even more candid than usual in making this avoidance of the “lamestream” media a badge of honour. She told the Christian Broadcasting Network that she was avoiding them “because there was no earnings there for me”. The Conservative channels allow her to fundraise directly in a way that would be prohibited on NBC or ABC. “I’m not going to earn anything from people who use my words to batter me with. In [conservative news outlets] they will let me say I need $25 dollars from a million people. [I can say] go to Sharron – send money”.

Sarah Palin was the original Tea-Partier who realized that she could get away with avoiding journalists. She never appears on any of the regular Sunday morning political shows – Meet the Press, This Week, or ABC News – to avoid giving any hostages to fortune before her expected Presidential Bid. During the Presidential campaign, she even managed to avoid all reporters’ questions for forty days. Now social media gives her the power to speak to her millions of facebook and twitter followers without ever having to face a hostile question. (All negative comments are swiftly excised from her wall).

But I can’t help wondering whether all this hiding , in the end, backfired on Tea-Party candidates. When Sarah Palin eventually had to face an interview with Katy Couric in the election campaign she was hopelessly inexperienced and wooden – giving convoluted and vague answers to the simplest questions. Her comic stock response whenever she got out of her depth “I’ll get right back to you on that one” cost McCain votes and credibility. Without years of practice at answering difficult questions, these candidates simply aren’t match-fit.

And what social media gives with one hand, it takes away with the other. The jaw-dropping viral clips of Christine O Donnell failing to understand the separation of church and state in the First Amendment cost her the election. They were taken on an I-phone camera smuggled into a Town Hall meeting where all “mainstream media” had been excluded. Packing a meeting with her own supporters failed to offer any protection. Starved of access, the media focus instead on finding “Gotcha” moments where these candidates screw up on the campaign trail or revelations from their past – like O Donnell’s confession of youthful Satanism.

Though it might have become easier to avoid the mainstream press, it’s impossible to avoid scrutiny altogether in a world where everybody has a camera. And, in the end, running scared is self-defeating for these conservatives: If Tea-Party pin-ups Sharron Angel and Christine O Donnell had a few more bruising interviews behind them perhaps they wouldn’t fallen apart in the middle of their campaigns. RB.

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