Is Sarah Palin's choice to avoid the press during her VP run an aberration, or the path of the future?
Let's sort this out a bit. First, while I respect the frustration that Andrew Sullivan expresses over the situation, I think it's fair to say that Palin's strategy leaves reporters with a set of bad choices. She's clearly decided that she's only willing to talk to reporters on her own terms, so they're faced with the unpleasant choice of either granting her a softball interview and trying to sneak in a little serious questioning, or refusing her terms, in which case she'll only be interviewed by a sympathetic partisan press. Add to that a market incentive (Palin sells), and one can understand why reporters have pulled their punches in the rare chances they've had to speak with her. That's not to say it's the correct choice -- only that reporters have only bad choices.
So, is the Sage of Wasilla winning? Is she "getting away with it"? Well, that's where it gets interesting. For her troubles, Palin is massively unpopular. Pollster.com has her at favorable/unfavorable averages at 35/52...that's pretty awful. For a comparison, Romney is at 32/33; Obama is currently at 52/40. What Sarah Palin has done is to retain the extremely strong support of a fairly small number of Americans. But that's probably something she would have even if she was giving interviews! Meanwhile, her media strategy is obviously doing an absolutely terrible job of selling her to anyone outside that small group. Granted, in my view the product is at least as much of the problem as is the sales campaign, but then again all anyone is asking here is whether she's liked (as opposed to the much tougher sell of whether one would want her as president), and she's failing on that one, too. It doesn't mean that she could never reach the presidency, if that's what she wants, but it's hard for me at least to see that the press strategy is helping her get there.
Meanwhile, we now have a Palin model of press relations for candidates to follow, and according to the NYT, Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle is doing the Palin, taking questions from conservative talk show hosts but ducking TV correspondents and print reporters. Will it work? I have no idea (see here, too). But we all know that at a state and local level, all most pols need is a basic and limited ability to spout cliches. I'd love it if that wasn't the case, but it's been a long time since state and local reporters were up to the job (actually, there are plenty of good local reporters and correspondents, but few who are given the organizational support or resources to do good political reporting). That's not universally true, but it is true more often than not.
Look, there are two things going on here, two ways that the media is in transition. One of them is that we're moving from a 20th century ideal of a neutral press to a system that has some large place for a partisan press. At the same time, we have a transition going on as a result of technological change, which is playing havoc with the sorts of communications channels that go back in some cases fifty years, and in some cases over a hundred years. And in both cases, we really have no idea where we're going. Will we have a robust, vigorous, and almost completely partisan press? Will there still be a place for neutrality? How will this play out for state and local politics? What kinds of norms will the partisan press develop -- and will those norms be the same for each major party, and will norms in the national press apply to the local press?
What I do think is that during times of rapid transition, and in this case multiple, overlapping, and interacting transition, that all sorts of odd things fall through the cracks. I think that's what's behind the Sharron Angle situation, and in a completely different way it's behind the Dave Weigel story. That doesn't mean we should ignore those things! To the contrary: we don't (at least some times) want the oddities to set precedents by default, because the way all these things are going to shake out is probably contingent: it depends not just on how the political parties are structured, and not just on the interaction of technology and the media, but also on how everyone involves acts. And so I think it's great to see Andrew Sullivan dive in strongly where he sees a gap in the reach of the press, and it's great to see all the self-examination by reporters in the wake of the Weigel fiasco. As far as answers, however, well, I don't think anyone has them, yet. I just think that we're far better off if everyone involved thinks about what they're doing, rather than just bemoaning the demise of the old order.