If she won’t talk, why can I hear her?

So Sarah Palin was on Good Morning America today …

Wait, scratch that. First, a story. I presented a paper a while back about a 2007 bomb scare in Boston that turned out to be a promotional stunt. The two perpetrators were performance artists who hung LED signs around the city in advance of the Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie. People saw the signs and thought “bomb,” which is more reasonable when you consider Boston was the source of some of the 9/11 planes.

Kind of appropriate, huh?

After the men were arraigned, they approached the podium for the standard, expected press conference. Instead, they informed the members of the press that they would only talk about hairstyles of the 1970s. And they stuck to their guns throughout – here’s the clip.

The reporters present reacted in several ways. Some doggedly tried to ask their normal raft of questions anyway (this failed). Others took the actors to task for not taking the conference seriously (they didn’t care). Some stormed off in a huff (see ya!). And a few tried playing the new game. Of these, some asked specific (and worthless) questions about hair, which were answered, and others used hair questions to ask about the case – “Are you afraid that if you go to prison you’ll get your hair cut?” These questions met some very mild success, but the conference was really just a big “no comment” on the actors’ terms that flipped the bird to those trying to milk it for information.

So there’s that. Back to the post.

Palin was on Good Morning America with Barbara Walters today, talking about her new book and not talking about whether she’ll run in 2012. She’s coy like that. Monday she was on Oprah.  The Walters interview will extend over five days and several ABC programs, and the Hollywood Reporter says she’ll be showing up on a few Fox News shows later on.

So what? People and politicians go on these shows to flog their books all the time. Bill Clinton made the rounds, as have many others. I’m no Sarah Palin fan, but there’s hardly anything remarkable about this on its own.

Here’s the thing: Palin loves to talk about how she hates the media, but only when it’s convenient to do so. Communication she’s a fan of: She’s on Facebook and is a well-known fan of Twitter – although her Alaska Gov. account went dormant in July, she’s recently revived her presence there just in time for the book tour (curiously, there are no posts yet, and the account is unverified – is this a hoax?). So lots of information there. On the other hand, she’s just announced there will be no reporters permitted at an upcoming speech in Missouri.

Once again, so what? As we’re finding out, with the variety of ways now available to access the media marketplace, even public figures can exercise some control over the channels and the messages that get sent (at least initially). Celebrities like Twitter because it gives them an unfiltered stream in which to publish their thoughts without media middlepersons interfering. The barriers to entry are getting so low that virtually anyone (With a computer. And online access … oops, sorry rural America!) can be a publisher. This is a good thing, and Palin’s on top of it.

What’s not so good is the way Old Media are allowing Palin to have her cake and eat it too. She doesn’t want to answer questions that aren’t convenient? Argues the news media have an agenda and can’t be trusted? Doesn’t want to participate in the way you do things? Fine. Don’t have her on.

Believe it or not, this isn’t an anti-Palin screed. I don’t know if it deserves to be called a trend, but there’ve been several high-profile cases in the last year of a celebrity eagerly seeking promotion via the mass media, only to springboard off that promotion by attacking the privileged coverage that they asked for.

I miss the quiet dignity of Britney.

Miley Cyrus is a great example. Remember that Vanity Fair cover by Annie Leibovitz? The Cyrus clan was fine with the allegedly racy image at the time, then decided it didn’t jive with their image, so they attacked. Or perhaps the attack is PART of the image, an image of the innocent cruelly used by the media. It’s not a coincidence that Palin is running a similar game.

Maybe we can blame Britney Spears (and can’t we always?), the prototype for the “Aw shucks, I just pose real pretty for the pictures” crowd. On the other hand, Britney didn’t then turn around and attack the people who tarted her up for her magazine and album covers (now the paparazzi, on the other hand …).

I don’t mean to take a cheap shot at Britney, but rather to use her as an example of how the game may have changed. NYU’s Jay Rosen (who would surely enjoy knowing he shares a paragraph with Britney Spears), described George W. Bush’s handling of the press as rejecting an age-old premise. The Bush Thesis, he writes, rejects the idea of the press as a vital, quasi-Constitutional check on power: “You’re assuming that you represent the public. I don’t accept that.” The result is a de-legitimization of the Media, an argument that, yeah, the beast wants to be fed, but we can decide when and what we feed it. And we’re fine representing ourselves, thanks.

Today, we’re seeing Bush Doctrine trickle-down (it had to work eventually). “Whoever can speak to the whole nation becomes a power,” Rosen writes, and that’s evident in the resilience of both Palin and VH1’s Celebreality programming (Antonio Sabato Jr.? Really?). Both go to suggest that the Bush Thesis is a communication phenomenon of the era, not merely of the former president.

After all that, there’s something to be said for a refreshing of the system, one where the press (old and new) needs to earn its privileges and where individuals hold the power to produce. That Senate bill that defines reporters by what they do, not who they work for, is a sign of the times. Communication can create power, and that ability is shared by both old and new media. What’s puzzling is the press’ comfort with being a passive tool of that power-making rather than an active one.

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3 thoughts on “If she won’t talk, why can I hear her?

  1. I love that fake press conference too. I show it to my newswrititng students to scare them. I want to be the guy that asks, “When are you going to cut your hair?”but I’d throw, “Hippie!!” on the end.

    What’s even better is the point you make about media control shifting back to sources. I try to make that point in my classes too, but you do it so much better. I think it would be as simple as saying to Ms. Palin, “No, you can’t be on our show unless you’re willing to answer some real questions.”

    It kind of reminds me what’s happening on the TV show “V” right now. At first, I thought it wasn’t going to succeed in the Battlestar Galactica, social-commentary mode, but I’m starting to rethink that.

    • Ooh, nice tie-in. I need to start watching V.

      What you suggest is a simple, upfront way to do it, too. No claims of “I was ambushed,” just know that if you’re here to plug your book, Mr. President, ANY question is fair game. That’s an especially valid standard for anyone who has put themselves forward as leadership material.

  2. (slowly raises hand) I’m sort of disappointed with V so far. Although it does have a priest who swears …

    As for running against the media, I don’t get the play. Attacking the news media, while time-honored, won’t win you much these days when nobody is reading the news. But when she attacks things like TMZ, which unfortunately is widely read and appreciated, she’s attacking people’s favorite media. And so TMZ or Perez Hilton lovers are going to circle the wagons just as much as us media curmudgeons would do when she attacks the NYT.

    You can’t run against what Americans love and expect to be loved.

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