Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–Doggonit, why does U.S. Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin (bless her heart!) and the McCain presidential campaign keep whining about the coverage she’s receiving from the out-of-touch-with-the-heartland news media?

Between her nomination and her Oct. 2 debate with the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the Alaska governor sat for interviews with just three television networks and gave no press conferences. Despite such cosseting, she’s made it plain she’s unhappy with any questioning.

That augurs poorly for accountability in a McCain-Palin administration.

The day after the debate, Palin complained to Carl Cameron of Fox News about the questions asked in a series of interviews with CBS’s Katie Couric, a stumbling, fumbling encounter that served a bonanza to NBC’s "Saturday Night Live" comedians Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. For these comedians, Palin is the gift that keeps on giving.

"The Sarah Palin in those (Couric) interviews was a little annoyed," Palin told Cameron. "It’s like, man, no matter what you say, you are going to get clobbered . . . There’s an indication of being outside the Washington elite, outside of the media elite . . . I just wanted to talk to Americans without the filter and let them know what we stand for."

Sidestepping the "filter" was the strategy she took in the debate. Palin said flat out she would say just what she wanted to say, regardless if her responses related to questions posed by moderator Gwen Ifill of PBS or to comments by Biden.

Coverage Honeymoon

Palin should have been satisfied with the media attention she received during and after the convention. Revelations about her attempts to get her sister’s ex-husband fired from the Alaska state police didn’t spark much outrage and her 17-year-old daughter’s pregnancy received relatively sympathetic attention.

Nonetheless, her champions cried foul about the intense press interest in her. Former New York mayor and GOP candidate Rudy Giuliani called it "indecent."

Meanwhile, some news people went positively ga-ga over the newcomer.

On Sept. 3, ahead of Palin’s acceptance speech that night at the GOP convention, CNN anchor Kyra Phillips gushed to Wolf Blitzer: "I can tell you, here in Alaska, she’s defined as a political rocketship. And I can tell you, those afterburners are firing up this state already and she hasn’t even begun."

The Wall Street Journal, in the debut issue of WSJ Magazine Sept. 6, ran "a conversation with Gov. Sarah Palin about her unusual workout and fitness routine." Biggest workout pitfall? "Being pregnant every few years."

The first weeks after the convention found weekly magazines giving her rock-star treatment.

People’s Sept. 5 cover story, "Sarah Palin’s Family Drama," was a sympathetic treatment almost devoid of politics and its potential to provoke reader discontent. Focused on Palin’s pregnancy, delivery of a child with Down syndrome and triumph over work-life conflicts, the piece portrayed an old-fashioned "super mom," harking back to the "juggler" ad campaign of Redbook in the 1980s.

Time put her on its Sept. 15 cover with the headline "The Education of Sarah Palin." Newsweek’s Sept. 15 cover, "Palin-tology: The Advanced Study of Sarah Palin and How She Sees the World," featured a gun-toting Palin wearing a work shirt and a big grin. The Time and Newsweek packages presented her as a force to be reckoned with; pretty good for someone most of the nation had first heard of only two weeks earlier.

Playing Hardball

During the 2008 primaries, Hillary Clinton was on the receiving end of cutting, cruel commentary that reflected a rejection of female aspiration for power. "Have you heard her cackle?" (Code for witch’s laugh.) "There’s just something about her that feels castrating." (Code for man-hater.) "Doesn’t it seem like Chelsea’s sort of being pimped out in some weird sort of way?" (Code for bad mother.) "Were those real tears in Clinton’s eyes in New Hampshire?" (Code for master manipulator.)

By comparison, Palin has been burnished by macho folklore about field-dressing game she’s shot, handling a big fishing trawler in rough seas, asserting herself as governor. The same Rush Limbaugh who complained that Clinton had "a testicle lockbox" says Palin is a "babe."

Camille Paglia, ever the provocateur, called herself an Obama supporter but said she couldn’t help admiring Palin’s display of "muscular American feminism" at the GOP convention. "She was somehow able to seem simultaneously reassuringly traditional and gung-ho futurist," Paglia raved.

Between now and the election it’s doubtful that Palin’s handlers will permit her to appear at any events other than those packed with enthusiastic supporters where she’s been saying, "The heels are on, the gloves are off," a line conjuring more a dominatrix than a hockey mom.

No Access for the Piranhas

Similarly, her media contacts likely will be limited to those who lean right politically. McCain-Palin campaign manager Rick Davis set the tone on Fox News Sept. 7: "Why would we want to throw Sarah Palin into a cycle of piranhas called the news media that have nothing better to ask questions about than her personal life and her children?"

What is ludicrous about Davis’ comments is that the focus on Palin’s family life represented the high points of her media exposure: feel-good elements she exploited effectively in pieces like the People cover story.

It gets tough for Palin when she faces reporters who ask her the policy questions they ask all national-ticket contenders, and who interview not only her family, friends and snowmobiling buddies but also people familiar with the negative side of her in Alaska. One prime example is the citizen blogger AKMuckraker–whose daily tabs on Palin’s home-state detractors on the site Mudflats, Tiptoeing Through the Muck of Alaskan Politics–are getting forwarded in e-mails around the nation.

If Palin aspires to a spot at the top of the Washington establishment she vowed to overthrow she has to expect more calls from Katie Couric and to survive tougher scrutiny. If she really wants us to think she’s a barracuda, she’d better learn how to swim with the piranhas.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism," Strata Publishing Inc., which received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from the Text and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, publishers.

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