The Sarah Palin email saga produced exactly one bombshell: The mainstream media actually managed to elicit sympathy for Sarah Palin from the showbiz elite. From Jon Stewart’s brilliant rant to the supportive tweets from Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, Palin found defenders in quarters where she had previously found nothing but ridicule and scorn.
For those of you who were focusing on more important things over the last few days (such as the debt ceiling or the Weiner photos), here’s a quick recap of the Palin email story: After almost three years of legal haggling, the state of Alaska on Friday released over 24,000 pages of emails sent or received by Sarah Palin during her term as governor. Mother Jones and other media outlets had used the flimsiest of pretexts to demand the release of those emails: A local activist had suspected Palin of conducting some political activities on government time. If that’s the standard, then journalists should be poring through the emails of every single elected official in the country (starting with the president). And while they’re at it, they should investigate whether gambling was going on in Casablanca during World War II.
The media quickly forgot about the limited pretext for their supposedly compelling need to snoop through Palin’s emails. The project morphed into an open-ended fishing expedition in the hope of finding something — anything — that would make Palin look bad. The New York Times enlisted the help of its readers to find “interesting and newsworthy emails, people or events that we may want to highlight.” The Washington Post issued a similar call to crowd-source their hunt for dirt on Palin — as if they were inviting the entire community to participate in the stoning of a witch.
Journalists were so blinded by their Palin obsession that they lost sight of what their job is. Where there’s smoke, it’s a journalist’s job to investigate relentlessly to find the smoking gun. From Watergate to Weinergate, that’s been the model for investigative journalism.
The problem in this case was that there was no smoke. The journalists pre-selected their target — Palin — and sought access to her emails in an attempt to find smoke. That’s not investigative journalism — that’s called “opposition research,” which is what political operatives do to political opponents. Opposition research is the dark art of doing whatever it takes to find something that will take your opponent down.
Of course, traditional journalists are not supposed to treat political figures as political opponents. To most conservatives, the fact that journalists routinely do so is another “shocking” revelation in the gambling-in-Casablanca vein.
When the traditional media undermine their own credibility, it hastens the public’s retreat into the mutually exclusive echo chambers of advocacy media. We thus really are becoming, to quote John Edwards, two Americas — divided not by class but by ideology.
The traditional media reside overwhelmingly in only one of the two Americas. Liberals outnumber conservatives in journalism by about four to one, despite being outnumbered in the country as a whole by about two to one. It appears that the profession of journalism, which has become admirably more diverse over the years in terms of race, ethnicity, gender and sexual preference, values every type of diversity but diversity of thought.
In the America that most journalists inhabit, it is an article of faith that Sarah Palin in an idiot, worthy of virtually any insult or indignity. It is not surprising that the journalists of the New York Times and the Washington Post would see nothing wrong in inviting their fellow Americans to share in the excitement of searching through Palin’s emails. It was as if they were inviting the entire country to participate in a joyous Easter egg hunt, with prizes for sharp-eyed participants who could unearth confirmation of what everyone (in their America) already knew about Palin. Who knows what goodies you’ll find out there? Spelling errors? Bad grammar? Displays of historical ignorance? Bigotry? Evidence of — dare we get our hopes up — criminality? As they say in the Ancestry.com commercials, “You don’t have to know what you’re looking for. You just have to start looking.”
Any fair-minded person would be appalled at the media’s grotesque over-reach in this episode. The problem is that very few of us are fair-minded about people with whom we disagree politically. We all preach civility when it suits us, but almost exclusively to castigate our political opponents for their lack of civility. As for those on our side who launch personal attacks on the other side, well, those attacks don’t sound so bad to us because our guys are brilliant and witty and, by golly, they’re right on the underlying substance.
That’s why the recent expressions of sympathy for Palin by Stewart and others on the left is significant. Palin-haters, after all, routinely mock her as an idiot, call her the vilest of names (“dumb twat” was Bill Maher’s eloquent contribution to civil discourse), and even poke mean-spirited fun at Palin’s children — including her toddler with Down syndrome — as a way of attacking Palin. While the ugliest slurs against Palin have on rare occasions drawn grudging criticism from the left, the typical liberal reaction to anti-Palin vitriol is a polite rewording of “the bitch deserved it.”
It really was a breakthrough, then, for the likes of Jon Stewart to be able to recognize that certain behavior can cross the line — even when it’s directed at Sarah Palin. Will partisans on the left and the right now be better able to feel each other’s pain? Not likely. But it’s strange to think that for one brief shining moment, Sarah Palin — that most polarizing figure in American politics — helped bring us all just a little closer together.
David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He hosts the debate show “Beer Summit” for PBS Guam.