Last week, PolitiFact.com announced its “Lie of the Year”: Sarah Palin’s claim that the health care bill might create “death panels” that would kill elderly or disabled Americans. It was a lie, the editors pointed out, because Palin’s claim was based on a mangling (by Michele Bachmann) of false claims by Betsey McCaughey — that the bill would mandate end-of-life counseling, and that rationing would deny care based on “level of productivity in society.” That phrase was Palin’s invention.
Palin responded to the PolitiFact article with a post on her Facebook page, claiming that, actually, the CBO’s assessment that it would be tough to cut the rate of increase in Medicare is the sort of thing she had been talking about all along. That’s obviously not true. But political reporters are taking note, filing stories about what Palin wrote that don’t add much more context. I really think this is a humiliating exercise.
The problem is that Palin has put the political press in a submissive position, one in which the only information it prints about her comes from prepared statements or from Q&As with friendly interviewers. This isn’t something most politicians get away with, or would be allowed to get away with. But Palin has leveraged her celebrity — her ability to get ratings, the ardor of her fans and the bitterness of her critics — to win a truly unique relationship with the press. She is allowed to shape the public debate without actually engaging in it.
Let’s take the example of her “feud” with Al Gore. Palin’s name appeared on a Dec. 9 op-ed in The Washington Post, calling on President Obama to boycott the Copenhagen climate talks because of the “fraudulent scientific practices” of climate scientists. The next day, Andrea Mitchell interviewed Al Gore, author of a new book on scientific responses to climate change, and her very first question was about … Palin’s op-ed. When Gore answered with a blanket response to “global warming deniers,” Mitchell responded by quoting Palin again: “One of the things that she has written recently on Facebook is that this is doomsday scare tactics pushed by an environmental priesthood that makes the public feel like owning an SUV is a sin against the planet.” Gore parried again, and moved on.
Palin responded to this with, yes, another Facebook post, one that was dutifully read aloud and reprinted. “He’s wrong in calling me a ‘denier,” she wrote, even though Gore had rather adroitly shifted the question from Palin — whom reporters care about — to the rather large population of “global warming deniers,” whom he cares about.
In this Politico write-up of the “feud,” Andy Barr posted most of Palin’s response without any kind of fact-check about her claims. That’s not Barr’s fault. The problem is with how Palin chose to engage the media. While Gore submitted to an interview, on camera, Palin lent her name to a Facebook post. I say “lent her name” because there is really no way of telling if Palin wrote the post — that’s probably the biggest problem with the way Palin is using the media here, and the reason I choose not to engage with this stuff. When the Gore “feud” really heated up, Laura Ingraham asked Palin whether she’d debate the former vice president on climate change. Among climate change skeptics, Gore’s unwillingness to face someone like Lord Monckton in a public debate is a burning issue, presented as evidence that Gore can’t handle criticism. When Ingraham posed the question, however, Palin rambled for a bit about how the format might bias Gore’s “friends” against “reasonable voices.” This was more than good enough for Ingraham.
INGRAHAM: But what if it’s an Oxford-style, proper debate format. I mean, he’s going to chicken out. I mean, if you challenge him to a debate, do you actually think he would accept it?
PALIN: I don’t know, I don’t know. Oh, he wouldn’t want to lower himself, I think, to, you know, my level to debate little old Sarah Palin from Wasilla.
So: Palin, having declined to engage Gore in any real-time discussion of climate change — having instead hid behind, basically, press releases — argued that Gore wouldn’t debate her anyway because he’s either a chicken or because he’s an elitist who looks down on her.
I think what Palin’s doing here is incredibly savvy. She knows that anything that goes out under her name will be accepted as fact by conservatives — “Going Rogue” was a 400-page exercise in score-settling that identified, for Palin fans, everyone who ever did her wrong. And she knows that liberals despise her and will pick apart everything that goes out under her name. It was liberals, after all, who obsessed over the “death panel” claim, because for whatever reason they thought it was vitally important to prove that Palin was misleading people about what was in the health care bill.
At the same time, I think that the media’s indulgence of Palin’s strategy — which often results in pure stenography of press releases that may or may not have been written by her — is ridiculous, bordering on pathetic.