It’s not exactly blockbuster news when Sarah Palin calls the U.S. Constitution an important document, tries to one-up President Obama in praise of the U.S. military or heaps another load of condescension on the media.
But it is news when Palin does all these things within a few days of one another as part of a tour that has her dancing around a possible run for president of the United States. It’s news, less because Palin might actually run than because this is what politicians do. And the media cover what they do, good bad and indifferent, especially when they are as fascinating and polarizing as Sarah Palin.
Ever since Palin announced her “One Nation” tour, multiple media outlets have scrambled to follow her bus, with no itinerary or real help from the principal and her team. And plenty of other people have taken to the Internet to denounce the whole spectacle as a publicity stunt and brand-booster for a brand badly in need of a lift.
Far from the daily schedules and constant updates they are accustomed to on campaign tours, reporters have had to beg sources close to Palin for hints about what will happen next. A reporter for the Times of London incorrectly guessed at a Memorial Day trip to Gettysburg (it came a day later) and only happened on her as he later staked out the road to Mount Vernon.
Team Palin threw the trailing scribes off the scent again Tuesday, leaving her bus idling outside her Gettysburg hotel while she slipped out to take a tour of the Civil War battlefield in an SUV. Palin is believed to be arriving in New Hampshire, which holds the first presidential primary, by week’s end. But no one outside the Palin bubble knows for sure.
Charles Mahtesian, national politics editor for the Web-based Politico, chuckled as he told me he had deployed a second reporter on the Palin tour to track the mercurial star. He made no apology. “She is arguably the most electrifying presence in American politics, so we are going to follow her,” Mahtesian said. “And, obviously, what she decides to do could have an impact on the outcome of the GOP primary.”
On Twitter, some said the former Alaska governor’s pronouncements were worth recording. More seemed to accuse the media outlets following Palin — including Politico, the Daily Beast, CNN, Fox News and the Los Angeles Times — of letting a celebrity gild her celebrity, to no good end. Asked one: “Should we buy an alcoholic a drink, contributing 2 their addiction & enabling them?”
The people complaining about Palin’s tour act as if she would no longer be a political player, perhaps even disappear from public life, if reporters didn’t ask her what she was up to. Alert: Sarah Palin has found a way to reach an audience via Fox News, Facebook, Twitter and her SarahPAC.com website.
Whether she will run for president, those who love Palin and those who loathe her exhibit a relentless attention to what she does. Television ratings jump when she goes on air. Web posts with her name in the headline draw more hits and many more comments.
It shouldn’t be the sole variable for judging newsworthiness, but at some point writers, editors and producers have to give their audiences a dose of what they are interested in.
Though Palin announced the tour on her website, travels in a campaign-style bus and stops at locales steeped in Americana, she insists she’s not campaigning but trying to have a vacation with her family and “campaign on our Constitution, our charters of liberty.”
Conventional wisdom has for months held that Palin would not leave her other ventures — which have included a $1-million annual contract with Fox News, bestselling books and a reality television show on cable’s TLC — for a return to politics.
But some of the reporters who have followed her closely aren’t so sure. Shushannah Walshe, a reporter for the Daily Beast website who previously cowrote a book on Palin, first followed Palin when she was the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008.
“I have consistently, since the end of the last campaign, thought she would run” in 2012, said Walshe, driving to New York on Tuesday afternoon for an anticipated Palin appearance at Ellis Island. “One of the reasons she went on the tour was to see the reaction, and so far there have been many, many supporters saying she should run.”
Palin’s Fox contract prohibits her from conducting formal interviews with other television outlets, though she has done a few quick stand-ups since she began her tour in Washington on Sunday. Her one prolonged interaction with the media came with Fox’s Greta Van Susteren. Van Susteren noted that Palin has said that, if anything, the fire-in-the-belly required for a long campaign has increased in recent weeks.
The reporters following her don’t discount that the whole tour — with future legs to focus on early-voting states — could merely amount to one big brand-enhancement ploy, unrelated to politics. They just don’t know.
Palin has signaled she is intent on teaching those smart-alecky reporters a lesson or two. She greets them with a smile at her events, then depicts them in her blog posts and interviews as slothful and unaware of the significance of the history she is putting in front of their noses.
A blog post Tuesday was headlined that she was “Reminding Reporters, too, of America’s Foundations.” She told Van Susteren reporters wanted too many handouts like, gasp, a schedule of her events.
“I want them to have to do a little bit of work on a tour like this, and that would include not necessarily telling them beforehand where every stop is going to be.”
Yes, fellow Americans, that’s really the biggest failing of the media: not overlooking crucial topics or obsessing on horse-race-style coverage. It’s the way those lazy-bones reporters expect you to tell them what you are doing.
No matter. The coverage will continue. Said Politico’s Mahtesian: “There’s a mutual codependency in the relationship. Neither side can live without the other, despite the protestations otherwise.”