Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Palin in prime time

You can’t say you didn’t get a warning. Back in September, Vox ventured the strong probability that Sarah Palin, former governor of Alaska and current burgeoning financial conglomerate, would land a high-profile prime-time TV gig by the end of the year.

Missed it by 11 days.

Fox made its big reveal on Monday, naming Palin as a Fox News contributor (or “analyst,” according to the network). The network didn’t waste any time, trotting her out on her maiden voyage on Tuesday night, as one of the on-air guests on “The O’Reilly Factor.”

Bill O’Reilly threw softballs much of the time, asking Palin why she felt she was the target of so much criticism.

“It’s not about me personally,” Ms. Palin said. “They don’t like the message, they don’t like the common sense conservative solutions I articulate.”

As you’d expect from the GOP’s contender for the vice-presidency in the 2008 election, Palin lit into President Obama and his declining poll numbers.

"It was just a matter of time," she said. "There is an obvious disconnect between President Obama and the White House, what they are doing to our economy and what they are doing in terms of not allowing Americans to feel as safe as we had felt."

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“She is one of the most talked about and politically polarizing figures in the country. First off, we hope she brings that,” said Bill Shine, Fox News executive vice president, to the Los Angeles Times. “The expectation that Palin will utter something controversial will likely drive viewership.”

Shine’s statement is not-quite code for that which ought to be perfectly obvious to anyone who's observed her: Of course she’s being brought there in the hopes that she’ll be controversial. She’s expected to be controversial! There are probably riders in her contract that demand it.

In the short term, it’s a given that Palin’s legendary unpredictability and a strident right-wing stand on the issues will attract the prime-time eyeballs that advertisers love. That’ll help fill the depleted coffers of News Corporation, a company bleeding cash until recently (lately rescued by the blue giants of “Avatar”). And the unspoken but obvious Fox political positioning makes it the perfect pulpit for her peculiar, passive-aggressive brand of conservative populism — one that Margaret Carlson of Bloomberg News seems to get.

“Sarah Palin is the latest in a line of populists,” she told Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC on Monday. “But she’s very different in one way: Populists historically have pretended not to know anything. They’ve actually been part of a fairly intellectual group of people. But she really doesn’t know anything, and it’s in God’s plan that she not learn anything.”

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But ironically, Palin’s new higher profile on Fox may work against her. Up to now Palin has risen above the mainstream, defining herself on her terms, a conservative rock star in the mediasphere.

Now, working as a colleague with the likes of Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck, Palin’s just another coif at a studio desk, her pronouncements just another soundbite in the echo chamber; her renegade persona is flattened by the relentless, impersonal ubiquity of 21st-century television.

Time will tell whether Palin rises to the occasion, acquiring the intellect, charity and perspective she would need for any credible run for the roses in 2012; or whether, like Lonesome Rhodes shilling for Vitajex, Palin will gain just enough insight into the American people to exploit their insecurities of region and identity for financial benefit and nothing more.

Sarah Palin’s been going rogue for a long time, accomplishing much of what she’s pursued. We’ll see if she’s got what it takes to be a standout, or just a face in TV’s crowd.

Image credits: Sarah Palin, Fox News logo: © 2009 Fox News Channel. Lonesome Rhodes: From "A Face in the Crowd," © 1957 Columbia Pictures.

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