As always, Sarah Palin has been attracting more attention than she probably deserves. Alaska’s resident hockey mom had a lot going on this week. First, the release of her memoir, Going Rogue. Then, she duked it out for top billing against the father of her daughter’s baby, Levi Johnston, who made a…erm… debut of his own in Playgirl. Throw in an unauthorized Newsweek cover that had her crying out sexism and an interview with Oprah, and we had ourselves a Sarah Palin bonanza.
Palin detractors are astounded by her staying power months after her media gaffes have tallied way past the point of excusable. How, they ask, is Palin, an ex-governor and former vice presidential candidate, able to score Newsweek’s cover story and Oprah’s hot seat all in such quick succession?
If anything, I blame the media personalities who have had the opportunity to interview her. The way they have framed their questions and depicted her has given Palin a spot forevermore on the political stage.
Ever since Palin captivated American audiences with her debut speech at the Republican National Convention, people have had either positive or negative feelings toward her. Palin moderates are few and far between — so few and far that I don’t know of any. She has been an extremely polarizing figure since day one. In turn, the news media also fed into the fixation. Interviewers like Katie Couric and Oprah do not treat Palin as an ordinary politician. Their respective approaches toward Palin have created a celebrity out of her.
Because interviewers are the people who lead the dialogue, interviews are primarily reflective of the interviewer’s personality and motives. Most reporters go in with a preconceived notion of what they expect to extract from their subject. Whether they are successful depends on their own preparedness, as well as the preparedness and personality of their subject. Both players, therefore, are crucial to the outcome of the interview.
The David Frost/Richard Nixon interviews proved how the personalities of the two combatants affect the outcome of an interview. Here were two men both floundering for their former glory, who both had everything to lose and everything to gain during those 1977 interviews. So set was Frost on getting what he and the American public wanted — a confession and an apology — that the whole interview became that of a hostile interrogator grilling the defendant. Outside of this zero-sum situation, Frost and Nixon had a mutual respect for each other’s modest beginnings. But Frost’s motivations outweighed his desire to approach Nixon on human grounds. In other words, he was no Oprah.
Couric’s sit-down with Palin during the 2008 election was, like the Frost/Nixon session, a battle of wits. Couric’s skepticism and negativity toward Palin was evident. She tossed curveballs at Palin that would seem like throwaway questions for any other person. For example: “What do you read?” Here, Couric strategically wanted to catch Palin off guard. She did not ask that question expecting Palin to come back with a rundown of her favorite publications. Palin, unsurprisingly, offered so many unintelligent, rambling answers that they quickly became fodder for Tina Fey and the rest of the Saturday Night Live writers. (Palin also told Oprah that she was flustered and put off by Couric’s inquiry into her choice of reading materials, deeming the question an insult to her intelligence.) That one interview contributed to the undermining of the McCain-Palin ticket and our endless fascination with her.
In contrast, critics noticed that Palin’s recent interview with Oprah on Monday didn’t result in as many flubs as her interview with Couric. Palin appeared confident and more like the Sarah we first saw when she clued us in to the difference between hockey moms and pit bulls. Oprah scaled back her usual “How do you feel…” line of questioning. Though she did push Palin on certain other subjects, Oprah was for the most part willing to stick to a Palin-approved script about Going Rogue. It didn’t hurt either that Palin had pages of recently published autobiography material to draw upon. Getting to mull over and write down her version of history — the script of her life — before being asked about it on live TV did wonders for preparedness, I’m sure.
Neither interview was that of an unbiased interlocutor asking a politician straightforward questions. Palin was either the subject of too much scrutiny and gotcha journalism, as with Katie Couric, or she was not scrutinized enough, as with Oprah. In short, Palin has never been treated as a normal guest. As a result, the public does not see her as ordinary, and she has risen in the ranks from mere politician to a celebrity wonder because of that.
If the interviewer and subject do not have the same goals for the interview or do not see eye- to-eye, the interview quickly escalates from a question and answer session to a journalism duel. A seasoned politician, a rogue even, should be able to handle either situation. Chalk it up to inexperience and unpreparedness for Palin. Still, Couric and Oprah have bought into, and even fueled, the media’s obsession with Palin. Thus, it is Palin who comes out the true winner.