September 13th, 2008 | Published in Reporting commentary
I don’t intend this post to be partisan because I try my best with newmediatheory to avoid partisanship. I want to put my main focus on some of the media ramifications of the Palin nomination. That said, the Palin nomination is a surprising political move and has made me realize two new things. First, John McCain is really out to win and still has the audacity of a fighter pilot. No soldiering on to respectable defeat, like Bob Dole, with Romney or Pawlenty.
The second is that Palin’s spectacular lack of national and international experience inexorably focuses the campaign on the issue of experience. Her inexperience is really going to force people to think about Obama’s lack of experience and, I believe, (I’m just speculating here) make it harder for some undecided voters to vote for Obama. Initially I understand it just looks like McCain is throwing away his strongest issue, but Palin MAY have been a canny move by McCain that bypasses the media entirely and speaks directly to the electorate in a way the media cannot control. I say this mainly because I find that thinking about Palin’s inexperience forces me to think about Obama’s. Every time Palin’s name comes up, particularly in the context of foreign policy, it makers me more aware that a vote for Obama is voting for the certainty of having an inexperienced president as opposed to merely the risk of it – albeit a real and stunning one.
This dynamic – even if there is something to it right now – may be clearly irrelevant by election day. But I think it is fair to say that so far the Palin nomination has seriously disrupted the media narrative about McCain and put the Democrats and Obama on notice that they have a real fight on their hands. Conversely, we should also remember if Palin makes a major blunder McCain will lose some or all of any advantage he may have gained. The media certainly wont be shy about attacking her if she gives them an opening. That said I think the media may be turning on Obama to a certain extent. While that phenomena is likely to be temporary, the media are like sharks when there is blood in the water. They forget their agendas and their ideological preferences and go for the red meat. Tentatively I will say I think I detect a media shift away from Obama, somewhat like the shift away from Hillary we saw after Iowa. The media are so anxious to get ahead of events that the minute a frontrunner is challenged the competition within the media produces this pursuit of blood – real or imagined. Camille Paglia’s recent piece in Salon Fresh Blood for the Vampire tends to confirm for me that the Palin nomination has impacted the election pretty profoundly. In the quotation below she is speaking of the impact of McCain’s announcement of his running mate closely following Obama’s speech at the end of the Democratic convention: (Note: you may or may not be able to get through Salon’s firewall. If not, this is the context: Paglia declares herself a strong Obama supporter who despises McCain. He is ‘the vampire’ of the piece’s title and in classic Paglia turnabout style she praises Palin as a new kind of feminist.)
Pow! Wham! The Republicans unleashed a doozy — one of the most stunning surprises that I have ever witnessed in my adult life. By lunchtime, Obama’s triumph of the night before had been wiped right off the national radar screen. In a bold move I would never have thought him capable of, McCain introduced Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his pick for vice president. I had heard vaguely about Palin but had never heard her speak. I nearly fell out of my chair. It was like watching a boxing match or a quarter of hard-hitting football — or one of the great light-saber duels in “Star Wars.” (Here are the two Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn, going at it with Darth Maul in “The Phantom Menace.”) This woman turned out to be a tough, scrappy fighter with a mischievous sense of humor.
True to my age and sex, I see McCain as a 70 year old who was bundled out of the 2000 election by George Bush and a Republican establishment who didn’t (and still doesn’t) like him. He knows this is his last and only shot at the presidency and when Obama gave him an opening by not selecting Hillary as VP McCain counterattacked in a flash. He is playing to win and if Obama really wants to win he better find an effective way to counterattack.
What interests me long term is to what extent this election is one that is seen as the last where public perceptions were effectively formed by the mass media in 20th Century fashion or the first where the more mixed media environment created by the Internet became an important factor. Both Obama and McCain are insurgents in terms of their party’s establishments and I think both know they are operating in world where the Internet is beginning to limit the control of the established media. Not only is public suspicion of the MSM high it appears to me that their gatekeeping power is more diminished than they realize. Perhaps consciously, perhaps by instinct, McCain has picked a running mate who by her identity – articulate, successful small town woman – and also a natural like Obama reaches right through the usual media buffer and speaks directly to the voters. Watching the media struggle to counter the Palin effect reminds me of Eddie Murphy in Trading Places where he hilariously persists in trying to deny he is faking being a blind, crippled beggar.
Addendum: Speaking of faking it, as I was finishing this post I found a thought provoking post at Breath of the Beast by Yacckov Ben Moshe entitled Rage, Sex Roles, Elections, and the Media that explores the shadow play of sexual personae of some of the candidates in the current election and how they interact with similarly layered facades that operatives of the media use to manipulate us. It also reminds me of the facades we all use at times to deal with the world.