A year ago today I went head-to-head, live, with Matt Lauer on the Today Show during the coveted 7:30 a.m. slot. The purported occasion for this interview was the release that day of my documentary film on the 2008 election and its aftermath, “Media Malpractice… How Obama Got Elected and Palin Was Targeted.”
Of course, the only real reason the esteemed Today Show agreed to lower itself to have on a relatively unknown conservative filmmaker who was introducing only his second feature film was that I was providing them with fresh interview video of the then seldom heard from Gov. Sarah Palin. Obviously, this is roughly the equivalent to offering crack to a street addict. During the course of multiple interviews I did that day, NBC proved the basis of my film more than I ever could have on my own…
What has transpired over the past year since that morning provides an enlightening case study on the state of our political media today. But before I share with you what I have learned, let me state some of the basic facts from the last 12 months.
I have appeared on dozens of national television and radio shows to promote the film and traveled to twenty different markets from Anchorage to Boston in order to screen it in front of almost universally enthusiastic crowds. I have been arrested at USC while trying to shine light on the absurdity of them giving Katie Couric a journalism award for her badly slanted Palin interview, and I have had my microphone cut off by MSNBC while discussing the Palin/Letterman flap that a second Palin interview I conducted helped spawn.
The film itself was a massive critical triumph but, barring a miracle, will only be a modest financial success.
But, like any conservative documentary filmmaker with a modicum of sense, my goal in creating the film was not primarily to make money. Instead, it was to correct the historical record with regard to the outrageous and dangerous coverage of the 2008 election and perhaps even influence the narrative of Barack Obama and Sarah Palin by at least planting the seed in our cultural consciousness that what most people have been told by the media about these two figures is simply not accurate.
To this end, while I am not nearly delusional enough to think that the film or my efforts are primarily responsible, there is no doubt that there has been a substantial (and for conservatives, rare) victory in this realm. The evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, is now overwhelming that the majority of Americans rightly now believe that the media coverage of Obama has been far too favorable and downright unfair to Palin.
As for Palin, while she was bizarrely attacked from all sides for having the gall to do an interview for the film which boldly and accurately corrected the record about a Presidential election, it is my belief that this story ended up helping her by far more than simply providing the sometimes vastly overrated value of telling the truth. Weirdly, since it was her first interview after returning to “normal life” in Alaska, the coverage of that episode set the precedent that any time Palin speaks it is considered a media event. This phenomenon became so ingrained in the media matrix that still today even sometimes rather innocuous postings on her Facebook page often make major news.
In a bit of poetic justice, the wrongly crucified Palin has benefited greatly from the right’s understandable and nearly primal instinct to intuitively gravitate to whichever conservative the news media attacks the most. She has become a master at riding this wind at her back to defy all predictions of her inevitable political irrelevance to become by far the most powerful and exciting force in Republican politics.
While my view of her politically is far more nuanced than perceived by the public and the media, it is by the most satisfying result of the last year that Palin has not only survived but personally prospered through all of this (for the record, she “endorsed” the film and I am still occasionally in touch with her, but, for many reasons, I have no official role in anything she does).
While, by just about any measure, Palin’s life and career are seemingly much better off (due to multiple factors having nothing to with me or the film) than they were a year ago, the same can not be said for me.
One of the many things I have learned over this past year is that it is not currently possible (at least for this filmmaker) to make a legitimate career creating conservative documentaries. Obviously the number one reason is Hollywood’s overt and overwhelming liberal bias, but what might surprise you to know is that had the right-wing media and elites supported this film anywhere near like they should have, then it would have easily been a grand slam home run instead of just a head-first double.
At the risk of being accused of sour grapes, while there have a few conservative media members who have exceedingly helpful over the past year (thanks, Rush), the vast majority have been silent and some, including a few I foolishly thought were personal friends, have ended up being downright hostile to this cause.
Why was this case? Like most mysteries there are likely multiple explanations. Many did not see giving oxygen to this project as in their self interest to do so. Some didn’t because they don’t like Palin, or me personally. Some probably felt that I or the film threatened their own territory. Some simply don’t give a damn about the cause and see what they do as nothing more than a business. Others, facilitating a maddening vicious cycle, seemed to not believe that it is was possible for a conservative film to make a real impact and therefore was not worth their time. And finally, some were just not paid off properly, as they seem to expect in a “pay for play” environment that smacks of Chicago politics.
As for the investor class, while a few good souls (not of great wealth) did devote small amounts to the film, no one resembling a “white knight” came forward to take the documentary to the next level. This lack of establishment support made many liberal attackers accusing me of being part of the Republican machine and Palin’s 2012 Presidential campaign, particularly amusing (the reality is that I found many members of the conservative elite to be openly hostile to Palin and anything remotely related to her, even as they publicly praise and take advantage of her).
While there is a growing support group of conservatives here in Hollywood, those in that faction who I stupidly hired for the non-production elements of this film actually ended up being literally far more damaging to the film than anyone at MSNBC ever could have been (at least when Keith Olbermann would name me a “worst person,” it resulted in a few DVD sales). Their incompetence and corruption greatly stunted the film’s potential while also facilitating most of the gray in my formerly brown hair.
The bottom line is that it is very difficult for me to conceive of ever again taking the kind of giant personal and financial risk it took to make this film. The conservative movement (the elites, not the rank and file who are thirsting for this sort of content and who have been very supportive) is just not currently capable of fully sustaining efforts like this. I am positive I did the best I could have under incredibly difficult circumstances and I know no one could have done it better, and yet, despite the unique gift of “Palin Power,” I succeeded only if one grades on a generous scale.
But this missive is not intended to be about me, but rather to be a cautionary tale to the movement as a whole. Here are some of the other lessons I have learned from this year-long quest.
• For all their many faults, give the left this… they understand that this is war. We seem to still think this is a picnic. We tend to bring butter knives to gun fights. It is no wonder we tend to lose all sorts of battles where the facts are clearly on our side.
• We do a really lousy job of protecting our “warriors” and punishing our “traitors.” In fact, it seems we sometimes treat our traitors better than our warriors, as long as they are big enough celebrities.
• The only real difference between the political media world and Hollywood is level of attractiveness. Both arenas are almost completely dictated by a celebrity-driven caste system that forces the participants to be far more concerned with their position on the totem pole than what is good for the movement.
• A whole lot of our “stars,” are frauds who really don’t act like they care at all about the movement and who actually often have a profound self interest to betray the cause and frequently act on that impulse.
• Ratings considerations and personal agendas are far more important factors in determining what stories get covered, even in the conservative media, than the truth or what might be good for the cause.
• The “business” of creating political content is far more difficult than anyone seems willing to admit. Some of the most ”successful” people in the movement are struggling to make the model work financially and this is during a relatively boon time for conservatism.
• The truth doesn’t really matter much at all. Everything is perception. Whether the truth ever really mattered is an open question, but what seems clear is that if the truth’s power to influence the national debate and the events within it is both feeble and weakening.
• This conservative resurgence of the past year is likely vastly overrated. The movement still faces enormous fundamental challenges, including the increasing liberal dominance over the vast majority of media, which independent voters tend to consume. While the media’s credibility to carry President Obama to re-election has been currently diminished, if the economy improves significantly at all they will still have plenty enough juice to pull it off, possibly with ease.
John Ziegler is currently a documentary filmmaker who most recently released a movie on the 2008 election called, “Media Malpractice… How Obama Got Elected and Palin Was Targeted.” He has also been in radio talk show host in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Louisville and Nashville. Ziegler has written two books and has appeared live on numerous national television shows including the Today Show, The View, Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC.