The news media's relentless hyping of the Palin “phenomenon” obscures an essential fact: Sarah Palin is extremely unpopular.
If you've turned on a television this week, opened a newspaper, or logged on to a computer, you're probably aware of the Most Important News Story Of The Year (MINSOTY): Sarah Palin, or someone in her employ, has written a book.
Given Palin's inability, during an interview with CBS' Katie Couric, to name a single newspaper she reads, the fact that she is now a published author does have a certain man-bites-dog quality to it, so you had to figure it would get some media attention. But the past week's media Palin-palooza has been more than a little over the top, even for a news corps that devotes wall-to-wall coverage to a helium balloon that isn't carrying a small child.
Newsweek put Palin on the cover (with a poorly considered photo). The Washington Post ran four articles (and two columns) about her in Tuesday's paper alone and dedicated nine -- nine! -- online Q&A sessions to her from Friday to Wednesday. The Post was so desperate to squeeze a fourth article into Tuesday's paper, it gave Ana Marie Cox only four hours to read the book and write and submit a review. And at times on Wednesday, MSNBC seemed to be running an all-day infomercial for Palin's book.
Wednesday's edition of MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell Reports -- broadcast on location from a bookstore in Michigan where Palin was scheduled to appear many hours later -- began with Mitchell breathlessly announcing that she and her crew had gotten to the mall at the crack of dawn:
MITCHELL: Sarah Palin is kicking off her book tour right here with a signing later tonight, but the action is already here today. We've seen more than 1,500 people. When we got here early this morning, they were here overnight, camped out; they brought their blankets; they brought their chairs -- and the scene has been incredible, as they were waiting to get wristbands that would then enable them to get back in line and to come here for the signing, which will be between 6 and 9, we are told.
She's going to come here a little bit earlier. She may talk to an overflow crowd. We don't know exactly what she'll do when she gets here. But there's a lot of action here. And she's actually going to be up in the Mystery section of the bookstore, Barnes & Noble.
A little later, Mitchell took a stroll past a display of Palin books, explaining:
MITCHELL: We're actually in the Woodland Mall, in the Barnes & Noble, and in this curtained-off area to take you behind the scenes. This is the area where Sarah Palin is going to be signing books when she shows up here in a couple of hours.
While talking, Mitchell walked slowly in front of a big blue curtain, holding a copy of Palin's book. All that was missing was a flashing 800-number and an offer to get a second book for just $1 if you call now. Then Mitchell got to what appeared to be a folding table with a chair and a blow-up of the cover of Palin's book. Fascinating behind-the-scenes stuff! MSNBC viewers got to see the curtain in front of which Palin was going to sit in, like, six hours! And not just that: The chair she's going to sit in, too! We're talking really top-notch journalism here, folks.
MITCHELL: There were people already lined up, some overnight, some at 3, 4 o'clock in the morning outside. The doors to the mall opened at 5. They could come in and warm up, those who could get in line that far. And then at 7, they were given wristbands to be able to come back, and then get in line again, for when Palin will be here later this evening.
The way Mitchell went on, you'd think she were covering a Beatles reunion tour featuring Michael Jordan and the Pope filling in for George and John. And this is where Paul is going to stand!
And not just Mitchell: MSNBC went all-in on its coverage of a shopping mall in which Palin was scheduled to appear hours later. Immediately after Mitchell finished, Contessa Brewer took over, announcing: “Massive lines to meet The Maverick herself, Sarah Palin.”
Talk about a Palin-friendly framing. Politicians -- other than Sen. John McCain, of course -- aren't usually introduced by reporters using their self-selected nicknames. But that was nothing compared to this Hardball exchange from last Friday:
CHRIS MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the Sarah Palin phenomenon. We can only judge these things fairly like a month at a time. This book's big-time. This promotion -- I've never seen anything like it, David.
DAVID GREGORY: It's extraordinary, and, I mean, she's extraordinary from that point of view of not just the book. I mean, all this year, it's as if she's like a senator or something. I mean, she issues statements and posts things on Facebook as if she's an incumbent or if she's a candidate for something.
MATTHEWS: She's got a position on the health care bill.
Got that? Palin “posts things on Facebook” and it's “as if she's like a senator or something.” Yeah, “or something” : There are about 300 million people who post things on Facebook. Posting things on Facebook doesn't mean you're behaving like a senator; it means you're behaving like someone who has a pulse and an Internet connection. But David Gregory finds it extraordinary and senatorial that Sarah Palin does so. And Chris Matthews is blown away that Palin has a position on health care reform.
But for real soft-bigotry-of-low-expectations, you have to look to Palin's fellow conservatives, who apparently thought her book would be written in crayon paper placemat. How else can you explain how impressed they were with the actual book? Rush Limbaugh, for example, called it “one of the most substantive policy books I've read.” And an apparently serious John Ziegler wrote: “I was simply blown away by Going Rogue on almost every level. For many reasons, this is by far the best book and greatest literary achievement by a political figure in my lifetime.”
That is not a view shared by many, of course. What everyone did seem to agree on is that Sarah Palin is, as Chris Matthews said last Friday, a “phenomenon.” Bill O'Reilly, Eugene Robinson, and writers for the LA Times, US News, and Reuters -- among others -- all used the same word.
But as political phenomenons go, Sarah Palin is a remarkably unpopular one. Not that you'd know it from much of the week's media coverage, but the American public as a whole really doesn't care for her:
- A CBS poll conducted this month found that only 23 percent have a favorable opinion of Palin; 38 percent have an unfavorable view. Only one in four Americans wants her to run for president; two out of three don't. One in four thinks she has the ability to be an effective president; more than 60 percent disagree. Only 43 percent of Republicans think she could be effective.
- An ABC poll, also conducted this month, found similar results: 43 percent have a favorable impression of Palin, 52 percent unfavorable. A whopping 53 percent of Americans would not even consider voting for her for president, and 60 percent don't think she's qualified for the job.
- A CNN poll conducted last month found that even more Americans -- 71 percent -- think Palin is not qualified to be president.
There is, in short, something very close to a national consensus that Sarah Palin should not be president and would not be effective in the job.
That's the “political phenomenon” that is Sarah Palin: She has pulled off the difficult task of uniting 60 to 70 percent of Americans behind a single political position. That position happens to be that Palin shouldn't be anywhere near the Oval Office, but it's still an impressively large coalition.
That's a fact that tended to get lost in the media's efforts to hype the Palin “phenomenon.” To the contrary: Much of the Palin coverage has suggested exactly the opposite. Like Andrea Mitchell's declaration from the Michigan mall: “Here, in the heartland, this is Sarah Palin territory.”
No, it probably isn't.
Jamison Foser is a Senior Fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog and research and information center based in Washington, D.C. Foser also contributes to County Fair, a media blog featuring links to progressive media criticism from around the Web, as well as original commentary. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook or sign up to receive his columns by email.