Sarah Palin Flubs Fox Debut and Takes Grief from ... Bill O'Reilly
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Only after Fox News announced that it had hired Sarah Palin as an "news analyst" did I realize that I've been subconsciously calling her Sarah Fox, Fox Palin, or Sarah Palin-Fox for a while now. She seems to be both the face that Fox wants to project and the audience it wants to capture: Palin represents the natural next stage in Fox's evolution from talking heads who pretend to know things that aren't true to those who sincerely believe things that aren't true.
You could even reverse the order of that old illustration of evolution, that row of amphibian, monkey, and human figures walking increasingly upright out of the water, to show Fox's development, starting with Shepard Smith, who really is some kind of journalist, to Bill O'Reilly, then gently moving down through Sean Hannity to Steve Doocy to Glenn Beck (an amphibian if ever there was one), and ending in Palin, who's all fish.
That strikes me as a smooth progression, or at least it did until I watched her debut last night on O'Reilly. Her halting and deferential appearance -- she even called Bill "the big man on campus" -- may actually undercut her usefulness as a propaganda tool. She seemed nervous with Papa Bear, who was rather snappish. Opening with a video mash-up of TV personalities calling her an "ignorant rightwinger" who "doesn't know anything" -- meant to outrage her fans, but demeaning nonetheless -- O'Reilly then weighed in with direct and often rapid-fire questions about "the perception... that you're not that smart."
Like, what's the graceful answer to that? O'Reilly had just shown John Heilemann, coauthor of Game Change , on 60 Minutes saying, "She still didn't really understand why there was a North Korea and a South Korea, she was still regularly saying that Saddam Hussein had been behind 9/11, and literally the next day her son was about to ship off to Iraq and when they asked her who her son was going to fight, she couldn't explain that." While Sarah flashed a fixed smile and told Bill that she didn't let that sort of thing get to her, it started to dawn on me that, in one important respect, Fox and Palin are quite different: Sarah Fox is not nearly as clever as cable Fox.
O'Reilly seemed to be passive-aggressively telling her as much Wednesday night. Notably, he didn't defend her by saying, "I know you and you're one smart cookie!" Rather, he defended her with his usual invisible-hand-of-the-market argument, noting that both she and Fox are so successful, scoring such high ratings and raking in so much money, that so what if the pointy-heads deride them as wrong? Are those people topping The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list?
Bloomberg's Margaret Carlson, on Monday night's Countdown, said it best: "Sarah Palin is the latest in a line of populists, 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 apparently that she [won't] learn anything."
And that's true: From Robert La Follette to Huey Long to George Wallace to, as Jon Stewart showed, the Oxford-educated Fox & Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson, most populists in American political history have only acted dumb, so as not to provoke the resentment of their audience. In fact, it's been their pretense of being just folks that usually annoys their opponents the most, and occasionally leads to attacks intended to "expose" their hidden taste for opera or some other such tell-tale sign of being a smarty-pants.