Cable News' Sarah Palin Sickness

10:24 PM PST 01/25/2011 by Paul Bond
Illustration: Kat Shady

They just can't quit her: The real reasons behind MSNBC and Fox News' co-dependence on a reality show star with sinking approval ratings, whom they nonetheless keep alive as Obama's opposition leader.

Now that Keith Olbermann has left MSNBC, perhaps cable news can begin weaning itself from its addiction to Sarah Palin. Sure, it will be tough, even expensive — withdrawals usually are — but we all know that reporters themselves are aching for some Palin-free airtime, and audiences seem willing to give it a try as well, judging from her sudden drop in popularity polls.

From a high of 80 percent a little over two years ago, Palin's approval rating sits at just 38 percent. That pollsters routinely collect such data on a woman who doesn't hold office (unless you count being the star of a nonrenewed TLC reality show a perch) and isn’t running for anything other than her next private plane for an appearance speaks to the media’s dysfunctional obsession with her. After all, it’s been more than two years since she was Sen. John McCain's vice-presidential candidate. Hence calls from some prominent columnists to publicly declare their intention to ignore her, at least for a while.

The Washington Post's Dana Milbank, in his Jan. 21 column, went so far as to propose a "Palin-free February" of news coverage after confessing he had written 42 columns about her since 2008. "Though it is embarrassing to admit this in public, I can no longer hide the truth. I have a Sarah Palin problem," Milbank wrote.

Admitting you have a problem and doing something about it, though, are two different things. The main problem in media? Profitabilty, especially for cable news. They just can't quit her. She drives ratings, and in an age of shrinking news staffs and foreign bureaus, she doesn't require much producer manpower save for a script with some plain old on-air commentary. You don't even have to pay for a stand-up shot in front of Congress anymore.

And the narrative and conflict is self-perpetuating. Palin is MSNBC's No. 1 target, and Fox News has become her chief protector. CNN does neither to the extent of its rivals, forever milk-toasting about under the guise of "balance," and it's probably no coincidence that its ratings are third among the three. All this talk about civility — especially in the wake of the Tuscon massacre — is boring in cable-news land. Consider CNN's John King, who apologized to his audience after a guest used the word "crosshairs" in an entirely benign context and was roundly criticized for political correctness run amok. Compare that to Olbermann, who in response to Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" call for more civil discourse, suspended his caustic "Worst Person" segment, only to quickly reverse course when audiences said they missed it.

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Olbermann first mentioned Palin on his show July 1, 2008, when his guest, conservative columnist William Kristol, recommended that McCain make her his vp choice. Since then, he talked about the former governor of Alaska in a total of 320 separate segments during his former MSNBC show, according to data compiled by LexisNexis. That's at least one story about Palin for every two episodes. The ex-governor who has become a lightning rod for left-wing criticism was such a frequent target of Olbermann's that the news of his Countdown show being canceled had one blogger joking: "It's Sarah Palin's fault. I'm sure she's behind this!"

But if the attention Olbermann gave to the diminutive and perky hockey mom from Wasilla sounds excessive, think again. LexisNexis indicates that MSNBC's Chris Matthews has reported on her during a whopping 420 segments of his Hardball show since she burst onto the scene as McCain's running mate two months after Kristol's Countdown appearance.

And MSNBC is no cable-news outlier. The hosts at CNN and Fox News are only slightly less obsessed with Palin, though the coverage at CNN attempts objectivity, and at Fox it is downright favorable — a given since most of its hosts lean right and Palin is employed there as an analyst. So basically, the 24-hour news cycle on any given week might go like this: Olbermann attacks Palin. Fox then attacks Olbermann for attacking Palin. Olbermann counterattacks by calling either Palin or Rupert Murdoch the "worst person in the world." And so on. You see, it never gets tired. Except it does: Primetime ratings for MSNBC, Fox News and CNN are all down.

Palin didn't respond to requests for an interview. Fox also declined comment, at least on the record, though several insiders there explained their theories as to why cable news is so focused on Palin.

"If MSNBC and CNN stopped talking about her so much, Fox would, too," one insider said. "Then she could behave like any other political analyst at Fox News and give her opinion about the issues."

Says another Fox insider: "Detractors are more obsessed with her than supporters are. And they can’t even explain why they hate her. Ask them about it, and they mumble something about her being stupid. But I'd hook her up to an intelligence test against Joe Biden any day."

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MSNBC vp primetime programming Bill Wolff maintains that his network covers Palin because she’s newsworthy. Period. End of story.

"She’s powerful and important, even if all you measure her by is her ability to raise money," he says. "She matters. Her blessing and her endorsement mean something.'

Wolff called it "nonsense" that MSNBC is driven by politics or even profits when it comes to how much airtime it devotes to Palin.

"MSNBC does not have a political agenda. The idea that we’re beholden to one side or the other is ridiculous," he says. "And if Sarah Palin is so good for business, why would we want to destroy her? We tell the truth. We hold up a mirror and say, 'This is what’s going on.' We’re not so crass to think that she’s good for business, therefore we'll talk about her."

Wolff is also executive producer of The Rachel Maddow Show, which ran 90 segments on Palin in 2009 and 99 in 2010, according to LexisNexis.

Wolff says the uptick isn't a trend but is based on the fact that Palin was more newsworthy last year than she was the year before (must be that reality show again).

"Sometimes we hear: 'Oh please don't cover her. We already know what she thinks,' " he says. "Some viewers say she's not an elected official so we should talk less about her."

Not happening. At Fox and MSNBC, every major program at those networks has been ratcheting up the Palin coverage, according to LexisNexis. In 2008, Olbermann mentioned her in 67 news segments, a year later it was 146 and a year after that 179. In 2009, Hardball ran 141 stories mentioning Palin and a year later it ran 184. Over at Fox, Hannity ran 94 stories mentioning Palin in 2009 and 145 the following year. The O'Reilly Factor ran 82 Palin stories in 2009 and 108 in 2010.

It appears that only a couple of hosts at CNN are actually trying to wean themselves off of Palin. Wolf Blitzer of The Situation Room talked about Palin 123 times in 2010, down from 157 times the year before, and the discussions of Palin at Anderson Cooper 360 dropped from 144 to 128 year-over-year.

CNN declined comment.

Despite the few exceptions, Pew Research Center says that Palin was by far the No. 1 newsmaker in 2010 (President Obama excluded, since Pew lumped him in with all mentions of his administration). On a percentage basis, cable news stories about Palin were as prevalent as were stories about the next two newsmakers on the list combined: Sen. Harry Reid and defeated Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell (who at times filled a similar punching-bag role to Palin's on MSNBC). MSNBC led the charge with the most Palin coverage, followed by Fox News, then CNN, according to Pew.

During the run-up to the 2010 elections — a topic that was second to the economy as the story covered most by the mainstream press that year — the biggest story line was the influence of Palin and the Tea Party.

"They accounted for more coverage than the role and impact of President Obama himself, even though many observers saw the election as a referendum on the president," Pew noted.

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So perhaps it’s time to dial down the coverage. Political pundit Gloria Borger, for example, penned an article recently at CNN.com that began, "OK, you’ve got Palin fatigue. Not to worry. So does much of the country." Eric Boehlert, senior fellow at the left-wing Media Matters for America, predicts that "2011 will be a watershed year. The coverage will change and she won’t be as good for business. We’ve reached a saturation point."

Even comedian and renowned Palin-hater Kathy Griffin has tired of hurling insults at the Momma Grizzly, and has vowed to attack her 16-year-old daughter, Willow, instead. "In 2011 I want to offend a new Palin," Griffin said.

But it won't be as easy for cable news to break its Sarah Palin habit.

The dirty little secret is that Palin has become the go-to topic that requires very little work and no boring background explanations for audiences, says John Ziegler, director and writer of the documentary film Media Malpractice: How Obama Got Elected and Palin Was Targeted.

"She is already known by everyone, which is very rare in this era,” he said. "She creates beautiful pictures and she riles up the extreme partisans."

Plus, MSNBC and, to a lesser extent, CNN viewers are overwhelmingly partial to Democrats (73 percent of MSNBC viewers and 63 percent of CNN viewers voted for Obama, according to a Wilson Research Poll) and like all good TV, drama is necessary to keep it going. They crave a boogeyman to fill the void created when President George W. Bush left office, and she’s now the face of the opposition. Palin fits the bill nicely, given her presentability (just imagine seeing John Boehner’s face all the time on TV), malapropisms and endless stream of controversial tweets and Facebook posts. And when there wasn’t that to rely on, MSNBC, especially, turned focus onto daughter Bristol’s stint on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, as well as Sarah Palin’s reality TV series.

"MSNBC will never find anything like Sarah Palin," Ziegler says. "It's much cheaper than real news. Just take Sarah Palin, add guests, some hatred, and mix. No other topic can replace her right now because that would require actual reporting."

MSNBC’S dependence on Palin was best displayed with the recent shootings in Tucson that left six people dead and Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded. MSNBC was crucial in driving the narrative that the killer was egged on by violent political rhetoric, particularly from Palin. Even after it was learned that the shooter was an atheist, flag-burning, Bush-hating, 9/11 Truther who enjoyed joking about abortion (not exactly the portrait of a Palin supporter), MSNBC still did not let up on that story line.

"When Sarah Palin puts targets on people’s districts ... when the vitriol and the rhetoric is so violent, we have to connect consequences to that," Matthews intoned on Hardball three days after the shooting.

"Why is it so difficult here for Sarah Palin to say what should be an easy thing, like, 'I regret my political imagery, that I had a potential to inspire violence,' " Olbermann said that day.

Indeed, four days after the shooting, the day Obama cautioned the nation to discuss the issue "with a good dose of humility rather than pointing fingers," MSNBC over the course of five hours mentioned Palin in connection with the massacre 166 times while mentioning the alleged killer, Jared Loughner, only 18 times.

Of particular concern to MSNBC hosts that day was Palin's video response to those in the media who had been insinuating that she had inspired Loughner’s killing spree.

"Instead of showing any leadership or taking any responsibility for her ugly rhetoric, or talking about the real victims, Palin used this opportunity this time to play the victim," Ed Schultz said on MSNBC’s The Ed Show that day. "Her game plan all along has been very simple — no apology, no toning it down, just attack."

Of course, the right maintains it’s Palin who is being unfairly attacked by progressive journalists at MSNBC, CNN and elsewhere in order to fulfill not only a business agenda but a political one, as well: the destruction of Sarah Palin. Naturally, Sean Hannity wasted no time getting Palin on his Fox show to defend herself some more. And so it goes. 

Still, says Boehlert: "Imagine if the press didn’t pay attention to Palin. The right-wing response would be that they’re ignoring Palin in order to destroy her."

Conservative author Ann Coulter wrote that on four occasions, Olbermann complained that Palin was suspiciously quiet. "The next day, Palin posted a video response, and Keith immediately attacked her for 'the worst-timed political statement ever.' It's almost as if liberals would attack Palin whatever she did."

While the left and right hash out the "real" reasons for dragging Palin and her infamous electoral map with crosshairs on it into the Tucson discussion, the theory holds that bottom-line business prevailed. (And frankly, filling hours and days with fresh information on a big story without constant breaking news, real news, is challenging at best.)

"In the case of MSNBC, ideological bias and smart business are the same thing. The viewers want Palin-bashing, the network cheerfully supplies it," said John Pitney, professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.

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So if the first step in quitting an addiction is admitting a problem, many in the media are on the right track. Politico wrote a year ago that "it’s a symbiotic affair — built on mutual dependency and mutual enabling,' and acknowledged that "clicks go up" when the website publishes Palin stories. "We know we’re part of the problem," the article stated.

More recently, The Colbert Report's Stephen Colbert analyzed a segment of Morning Joe on MSNBC where co-host Mika Brzezinski acknowledges that she hates that they are compelled to talk about Palin.

"At what point do we just ignore?" she asked co-host Joe Scarborough.

"Clearly, Mika is experiencing what journo-psychologists call Palin-fatigue," Colbert said after playing the clip.

Said Colbert to the camera afterward: "Mika, you need to buck up. I know you think this story has no purpose other than keeping Sarah Palin’s name in the headlines for another news cycle. … I know you think Sarah Palin is at best a self-promoting ignoramus and at worst a shameless media troll. … I know that when you arrive at the office each day, you say a silent prayer that maybe, just maybe, Sarah Palin will at long last shut up for 10 f---ing minutes."

Whether Fox, CNN or MSNBC can successfully wean themselves off of Palin — or whether they even want to — remains to be seen, but momentum for such a scenario is clearly building among journalists in general. What happens to ratings, however, is another question.

Dana Milbank's column followed one from Ross Douthat in the New York Times five days earlier that made the case that the frenzy to tie Palin in with the Tucson shootings — an episode he called "a little bit obscene" — was the final straw.

Douthat began with this: "In every twisted, wretched, ruinous relationship, there are moments so grim, flare-ups so appalling, that they offer both parties a chance to step back, take inventory, and realize that it’s time — far past time, in fact — to go their separate ways. For the American media and Sarah Palin, that kind of a moment arrived last week."

From his lips to God's ears.             

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