Putting Palin on the rack, twenty-first-century style
The liberal media’s gleeful ogling of Sarah Palin’s private emails captures what lies at the heart of today’s leaking culture: low political prurience.
The liberal-leaning Washington Post was clearly excited. ‘Help analyse the Palin emails’, it implored readers. In Britain, the Observer and the Guardian found themselves in similar pant-wetting territory. ‘Read all the unexpurgated Palinisms at guardian.co.uk/datablog’, the Observer managed to announce despite the excess of saliva. ‘Comb through the emails to find the best stories’, it told its readers. ‘Flag them according to how interesting they are and alert us – by email or on Twitter’.
And who could begrudge them their moment to bask in the potential humiliation of Sarah Palin, one-time Republican vice-presidential candidate and rumoured presidential candidate-to-be. After all we’re talking here about the bête noire of American liberals, and, for their British counterparts, the symbol of all that is rednecked, religious and reactionary about America. And make no mistake, this email extravaganza was it. Three years after a few journalists and citizens made a freedom of information request, 24,199 bona fide Sarah Palin emails, sent between January 2007 and September 2008, were finally to be made available. At last, the world would see what superior West Coast intelligences have long known. Palin is an idiot. Not just that, she’s an idiot who speaks in funny, folksy phrases. As the Observer put it, the ‘irresistible car wreck the country cannot but help ogle’ was approaching her final humiliation.
Sadly for this indefatigably smug constituency of American liberals and Guardianistas, the final humiliation did not arrive. Three days in and that ‘cat-torturing, wolf-slaughtering, Bible-blaspheming, presidential-disqualifying smoking gun’ is yet to be found. Yes, readers have been able to enjoy Palin’s distinctive exclamations like ‘geez’ or ‘holy flippin’ crap’, but the point at which she reveals herself to be some Machiavellian genius, charming the Soccer Moms in public while killing the gays in private, has steadfastly refused to arrive. Those searching the six boxes of material have simply been unable to find that one revelation which would ‘torpedo her credibility once and for all’.
Like the endless gossip masquerading as establishment-shaking journalism that was Wikileaks, the Palin email dump has done little more than massage the prejudices of those who already hate her. She’s dripping in hokey Americana. She’s a little too literal with the Bible. And, yes, she was none too keen on revealing the pregnancy of her unmarried, teenage daughter. But as Frank Bailey, a one-time subordinate of Palin and author of Blind Allegiance to Sarah Palin, pointed out: ‘There’s a sense that the most interesting Palin material is already out in the world.’
So, as it turns out. The whole hyped-up, Palin-mail dump has been tedious, banal and, dare I say it, more than a little pointless. Politically it seems to be a case of the same, Middle America-baiting, Tea Party-hating hymn sheet being sung with ever-decreasing gusto by the converted. In fact, so over-the-top has the gleeful coverage been that the Guardian, having sifted through the emails with creepy excitement, was forced to justify its actions to its embarrassed readership. Some said that its appeal to readers to help sift through the thousands and thousands of emails was a little workshy. Deputy editor Ian Katz was not having any of it, however: ‘It would be hard to suggest that the Guardian stinted on its conventional reporting of the mails. Two of our US correspondents, Ewen MacAskill and Ed Pilkington, travelled to Juneau to work their way through the email cache while Richard Adams and later Ben Quinn liveblogged what they and other reporters were finding.’ Journalists ‘liveblogging’ the work of other journalists? How about painters ‘liveblog’ paint drying, too?
But the greater charge was that the Guardian and its cohorts were guilty of the same behaviour as those they have pursued with such anti-press freedom zeal at News International – namely the journalists who have allegedly been hacking the phone messages of the occasionally rich and not very famous. Stung by this accusation of hypocrisy, Katz retorted: ‘There is a world of difference between combing publicly available material for potentially significant stories about a highly controversial political figure who could still be a US presidential candidate, and hacking into the voicemail of a celebrity to dig up dirt on their sex life.’
Of course there is a difference here, but it is a matter of shades, not worlds. Firstly, both the phone-hacking and the Palin email dumps share a similar journalistic laziness. There is no judgement being employed here, no editorial vision directing proceedings. Rather, it is a case of having a lot of private material fall into the laps of journalists – which they can no doubt ‘liveblog’.
More importantly, however, while Katz might argue that the private sphere of a public figure such as Palin is more suitable for snooping around in than the bedroom of a celebrity, both approaches are born of the same obsession with this private realm. When it comes to political life this approach becomes conspiratorial and, as such, it degrades it. It suggests that there’s little point in holding people to account on the basis of their public positions or policies because the real story is behind the scenes. It is the gossip in the corridors of power, the whispers behind the closed doors. That’s where the dirt is, that’s where the bodies are buried – that’s where the truth is, apparently. All the stuff of politics – the public debate, the public argument – that is all just so much deception. The real political story is behind the scenes, we are informed.
Not only does such a journalistic approach reinforce an anti-political cynicism, and further diminish democracy, it is also self-perpetuating. There is always something that we – or better still, journalists – don’t know, always somewhere else for the truth to be residing. There is always something potentially being hidden, in emails, in phone messages, in hotel rooms, that we don’t know about. Little wonder that the Observer was able to overcome its disappointment with Palin’s rather banal offerings with the caveat, ‘if there is a whiff of genuine controversy, it probably lies more in the emails that have been redacted or withheld’. And so it promises to continue, infernally and tediously.
‘A lot of those emails obviously weren’t meant for public consumption’, Palin said ahead of the emails’ publication last week. That much was apparent from the workaday banality of the content. For the sake of politics and public life, it’s time for a little less ‘transparency’. After all, not every-tiresome-thing that a politician does in private is of public significance.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.