?The crowd of about 100 people sits in the dark, hushed, mouths agape, as Gov. Sarah Palin watches clip after clip of 2008 presidential campaign coverage. She peers at a laptop and watches Saturday Night Live star Tina Fey, as “Sarah Palin,” answer a question about moral values.
“I believe marriage is meant to be a sacred institution between two unwilling teenagers,” says Fey. Briefly, we see the hosts of The View, laughing along with the skit.
“How’s that make you feel?” asks John Ziegler.
Image by: Matt Mahurin
“The mama grizzly rises up in me,” says Palin, “hearin’ things like that!”
It is the final hours of the Conservative Political Action Conference, and Ziegler is piggybacking off the event by screening, for the second consecutive day, the interview he conducted with Alaska’s governor for his documentary “Media Malpractice: How Obama Got Elected and Palin Was Targeted.” The crowd shrinks little by little as the interview — 43 minutes long — goes on. Those who remain let out gasps at the clips that Palin is forced to watch, and cheer when she fires back at the voices on the laptop screen.
Palin watches Katie Couric ask her what she reads, then a clip of David Letterman laughing about how Palin’s non-answer was a ploy for the illiterate vote.
“Even in the post-election interview stage,” Katie Couric tells Letterman, “nobody has asked her: Why didn’t you answer that question?”
Palin shakes her head. “Because, Katie, you’re not the center of everybody’s universe. Maybe that’s why they didn’t think to ask that question.” The crowd goes wild.
The governor of Alaska skipped out on CPAC, giving a two-week notice of her non-participation two months after her office hinted that she’d be there. This decision dented her image in the halls of the Omni Shoreham Hotel — she tied Ron Paul for 13 percent support in a straw poll of potential 2012 presidential candidates — but a CNN poll released on Friday gave Palin an early lead among Republican voters who’ll chose the party’s next nominee. Twenty-nine percent of them supported Palin, to 26 percent for Mike Huckabee and 21 percent for Mitt Romney.
Of course, a CNN/USA Today poll taken exactly four years ago gave contender Rudy Giuliani a 34 percent to 29 percent lead over Sen. John McCain. The number is still illustrative. Just as the Republicans of four years ago concerned themselves with national security credibility and war-on-terror heroism, the Republicans of 2009 are looking for a candidate who will run as a diehard conservative while sticking it to the mainstream media. The narrative of Palin’s mistreatment by the press permeated CPAC, spilling over not only into Ziegler’s event, but to the “Conservatism 2.0″ conference held in the hotel by PajamasTV.com.
At the “Washington Tea Party,” a panel of conservative and liberal women modeled after “The View,” Democratic Fox News pundit Mary Ann Marsh fretted about the media’s treatment of female presidential candidates.
“After watching this last presidential campaign,” said Marsh. “I’m not sure how long it will be before a woman can run and win the presidency.” Several voices in the crowd shouted out “2012!”
“It’s worth debating,” said Marsh, “but for all the hue and cry over the treatment Sarah Palin got, Hillary Clinton got it just as bad.” The audience erupted with boos. “Well, we can disagree.”
Ziegler’s documentary is the purest distillation of this outrage. The long interview with Palin is a complement to footage of Obama voters incorrectly answering questions about their candidate and correctly answering questions about Palin and Republicans. The thesis, as Ziegler explained at the screening and as he’s explained elsewhere, is that liberal media bias turned a Republican star into a joke by lying and manipulating the public.
“The worst mistake the McCain campaign made,” said Ziegler, “was not making sure that every interview Sarah Palin did was live. Having her do taped interviews was the worst mistake. It gave the enemy the opportunity to edit her words, and it let them ask questions they wouldn’t have dared ask her on live TV, because if she got them right they’d look like morons.” The campaign should have booked Palin on Larry King Live. “Larry would have been slobbering over himself, as usual, but with a beautiful woman in front of him he would have been helpless. And she would have looked spectacular.”
The Sarah Palin who appears in Media Malpractice is a rorshach test. To reporters who had seen clips and talked to the filmmaker, the governor wallows in the lost campaign and comes off looking sore. To Ziegler, and to the people who watched the screening, she is a likeable, real person who’d be within her rights to hold grudges against those who destroyed her image.
“I saw that Katie Couric interview when it aired,” one man told Ziegler. “I had to turn it off… it was causing bile to rise up in my throat.”
In the film, Ziegler argues that Couric was unfair to Palin in the series of interviews she held with the governor during the campaign by “taking off the table” Roe vs. Wade and asking Palin to name another Supreme Court decision. In the Q&A Ziegler pondered what it meant that Joe Biden, given the same question, had handled it more adroitly. “Joe Biden had so many other gaffes in the campaign that he could have said anything and it wouldn’t have mattered.”
As this argument goes, no candidate could have fared better than Palin. Any conservative who runs for high office will be pummeled by a liberal press that loads its questions. In the Palin interview, Zeigler explains that the media’s questions are so slanted that conservatives must think through every trap and every trick, and even that little pause can make them look ill-informed.
“What would have happened if Barack Obama had been asked the question, “‘What do you read?’” asked Zeigler after the screening. “Would they have gone after Obama if he took six seconds to think about it? No, the question wouldn’t have even been asked. [Couric] would have been fired for being a racist.”
Late into the Media Malpractice interview of Palin, Ziegler asks whether the treatment of Caroline Kennedy by the political press reflected a class bias; Palin partially agrees that it does. But in the weeks after the Ziegler-Palin conversation, Kennedy was pilloried in the media for perceived elitism, for not voting in multiple elections, and for saying “you know” to fill gaps in her conversations. She tumbled in public opinion polls and lost her shot at New York’s open Senate seat — if she ever had one.
“Certainly, Kennedy did get some criticism,” said Ziegler after the screening. “You should compare it not to Sarah Palin, but to the what the reaction would have been if she’d been a conservative. I think it’s pretty clear.”
As Ziegler walked out of the screening, to a table where copies of the film were selling two for $20 (“our send one to a liberal campaign”) TWI asked Ziegler if he felt the documentary had helped or hurt Palin’s chances for 2012. “I know I didn’t hurt her image,” said Ziegler. “I thought she was very good. You don’t think she was good in the interview?” No matter how the rest of the press interprets the interview, the lesson that conservatives need to take on the press and be ready for its bias is indelible.”
“George W. Bush decided not to fight back, and look what happened to him. He crawled up into the fetal position the moment Katrina hit and from then on.”