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Blurring of media lines hurts public

September 04, 2008|JAMES RAINEY

The mystery woman of the great white north, Sarah Palin, introduced herself to the nation last night as a regular "gal." And now Americans craving more information about the would-be vice president of the United States will turn to . . .

Yes, their supermarket checkout counters. There, a cornucopia of no fewer than four celebrity publications -- People, Us Weekly, OK! and the National Enquirer -- will shout with headlines about the young governor of Alaska.

Is she the plucky and competent everywoman, ready to fight the pointy-headed elites of Washington? Or is she a perilously unprepared naif, cynically offered as confirmation of John McCain's "maverick" brand?

In a more perfect nation, we wouldn't rely on mags that live for Brangelina and "They're just like us" features to set the course for democracy. But that's just me, an irritable old-media throwback.

These glossies have readership that newspapers could only pray for. (People is a juggernaut with a circulation of 3.8 million and as many as 43 million readers, counting all the eyes that pass over a single copy.) And they're highly influential, particularly in the lives of some young women who otherwise don't pay a lot of attention to politics.

"People love to vote in 'American Idol,' but they often can't be bothered to vote in anything else," OK! editor in chief Sarah Ivens told my colleague James Hohmann on Wednesday. "Hopefully this interest in the personality will push them out to make decisions."

Like the rest of the media, the tabloids are far from a monolith.

This week, People fulfills a now-familiar role in our politics, treating Palin to flattering family portraits and a chance to tell her story, complicated by the birth of her Down syndrome child and her teenage daughter's pregnancy.

"That's what we do, tell our readers who these people are, what's the fabric of their lives," said Larry Hackett, People's managing editor.

Palin's story of raising a special-needs child and four other children while serving as governor was so much in the magazine's "sweet spot" that it already had a profile ready when news of the VP pick broke.

"We already thought she was a terrific story," Hackett said. "Now, she has become the most compelling public figure out there."

Should you reach to the other side of the chewing gum display for Us, you'll get a decidedly different take, as evidenced by the headline "Babies, Lies & Scandal."

It might be no surprise to regular readers that Us isn't taking the high road here. But one has to wonder whether the extra punch isn't somehow linked to the magazine's overlord, confirmed Barack Obama worshiper Jann Wenner.

Editor in chief Janice Min assured me that Jann, he of "Rolling Stone" fame, was vacationing and played no role in the story.

"Reporting on the people who are going to lead the country in an aggressive way is what the press should be doing," Min told me.

There's aggressive and then there's nasty. And Us clearly tilts toward the latter.

The magazine opens with a scene in which Palin "giggled along" as a radio shock jock trashed one of her political opponents, seeming to make sport of the woman's bout with cancer -- an episode the governor apologized for this year.

Although real questions have been raised about Palin, such as whether she meddled in the discipline of a state trooper once married to her sister, Us already has satisfied itself that these are full-blown "scandals." And the magazine assures us the troubles are spreading "as fast as flies at a Labor Day picnic."

Other weaknesses in the snark-heavy, precision-light Us account don't merit a retelling here. But you get an idea of how the story tilted when you find that the magazine scanned a target-rich environment for experts to confirm McCain's VP dilemma and came up with two giants -- a "commentator on Yahoo" and a Democratic party strategist. Oh brother.

When I suggested the magazine had put too much spin on its story, Min offered as proof that I was wrong this non sequitur: "The writer on the piece is a McCain supporter."

OK, I didn't expect the frothzine to bowl me over with Wall Street Journal or New York Times quality stuff. But here's why slipshod accounts like this aren't so trivial: In an ever-more diverse and distracted world, some readers don't have time to seek out other accounts.

And there are a gang of partisans waiting out there who will blur the lines, lumping Us Weekly and the Enquirer and others in with serious news organizations that still try to get it right.

We heard it for the second day running Wednesday. The Republicans devoted much of their energy to knocking down the mythical, monolithic "media." A group of Republican women led by Carly Fiorina faced down a room full of reporters at the convention center here and demanded that the Palin "smears" stop.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift, in particular, railed about the unfairness of it all. I thought maybe I had missed something, so I followed Swift into the hallway.

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