The Palin Effect and the Death of Political Journalism

You may not like political reporters, but you’ll miss them when they’re gone.

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Sarah Palin is living the dream. Since the dawn of time, or at least since the 1960s, politicians from both parties, though conservatives in particular, have yearned to block out the press. They have pined for a way to commune with their voters without the pesky media distorting their message.

Now, a couple of incipient trends are increasingly making it possible. On one hand, the reportorial ranks have been decimated, leading some to fear the end of that journalistic species known as the local political reporter. On the other hand, pols have a host of new ways to reach voters. Here, Palin is blazing a trail which some high profile GOP-ers are starting to follow.

To the extent that these two factors grow and feed off of each other, it will be bad for American politics.

Since her sudden departure from office, the former half-term governor of Alaska has managed a political feat that is audacious and a bit startling. She has maintained her role as a national figure without ever dealing with the press. Instead, she has issued a steady stream of pronouncements through Facebook and Twitter—where she'll never have to weather gotcha questions like "What newspapers do you read?"—while also appearing on friendly broadcast outlets.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on Sarah Palin.]

Practically the only time she addresses reporters is when she denounces them as the "lamestream media," often from her regular perch on Fox News. (With the 13 most-watched cable news programs, Fox is by any measure, and especially by a Palin-esque, market-driven one, the definition­ of mainstream media. So what does she mean by "lamestream media"? Oh wait, I've just answered my own question.)

Palin is of course not unique in embracing new media. Obama campaign-produced videos were viewed over one billion times during the 2008 presidential campaign according to Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. That's more eyes watching Obama on YouTube, Rosenstiel suggests, than saw him on network nightly news reports.

But new and alternative media have been a component of a media strategy, not its totality. With the press transcribing Palin's tweets as if they were serious policy statements, why should she ever go back? And other candidates are starting to take Palin's cues.

Kentucky GOP Senate nominee Rand Paul went to ground after making his national debut by questioning elements of the Civil Rights Act. "Where in the world is Rand Paul?" one AP article asked in early June. When a local TV reporter tried to ask Paul about Medicaid reimbursement, the would-be senator said he would be "more than happy to answer any questions about our campaign activities, and running for office," but not policy ones. If the reporter wanted to submit a question in writing, the campaign would look at it, Paul said. Apparently, Paul has decided not to get lured into the trap of saying what policies he would support if elected.

Nevada Republican Senate nominee Sharron Angle was literally chased through a parking lot last month by a reporter asking what she had meant when she said "Second Amendment remedies" might be needed if Congress doesn't shape up. "Where In The World Is Sharron Angle?" (notice a theme?) a local Fox station headlined one mid-June story. And she demonstrated the wisdom of the Palin approach at the end of June when she broke down and chatted with veteran Nevada reporter Jon Ralston. Judging by what she said, silence really was the better part of campaigning. "There are jobs" in Nevada, she said, but people are refusing them because of the cushy lifestyle afforded by unemployment benefits. For those keeping score at home, Nevada's unemployment rate is 14 percent, the highest in the nation.

That Paul and Angle were being pursued by intrepid local reporters could almost be a story in and of itself. Veteran national political reporter Walter Shapiro has noticed a dearth of local reporters following candidates. "What we are witnessing in this election cycle is the slow death of traditional statewide campaign journalism," he wrote on the website Politics Daily.