One of the themes of the book I’m working on is the whole notion so many bloggers have had that the media represent a “filter,” and blogging allows it to be bypassed. Not an idea that’s original to me — you betcha! — but one that is entwined with the whole subject I’m covering.
So you know that my ears perked up in the vice-presidential debate last week when Sarah Palin said:
I like being able to answer these tough questions without the filter, even, of the mainstream media kind of telling viewers what they’ve just heard. I’d rather be able to just speak to the American people like we just did.
She hit the same point again on Fox on Friday, discussing her disastrous performances with Katie Couric:
I guess I have to apologize for being a bit annoyed, but that’s also an indication about being outside that Washington elite, outside that media elite also, and just wanting to talk to Americans without the filter and let them know what we stand for.
And here she is again in William Kristol’s column today:
She doesn’t have a very high opinion of the mainstream media… She described the debate on Thursday night as “liberating,” and she emphasized how much she now looked forward to being out there, “getting to speak directly to the folks.”
It’s fair to say, I think, that “bash the MSM and yearn to speak directly to the folks” is now at the front of Palin’s deck of talking-point index cards, right up there with “maverick.” Before diving in for a look at this rhetoric, a caveat: It may ultimately be impossible to try to read Palin’s words here, as elsewhere, too closely. Like some smudged-out ancient scroll, her text is simply too corrupted in too many ways to support a confident interpretation. Still, her animus against the “filter” is no coincidence, and bears scrutiny.
A filter can be a highly useful thing. Most of us value the idea that the news media will boil down a torrent of information into something manageable. But filters can distort a signal, and they can malfunction: they can filter out something we want, or include something we don’t want. So we need filters, but we don’t always trust them.
Some of the earliest blogs viewed themselves as filters of the Web (Michael Sippey called his proto-blog Filter, or later Filtered for Purity); their idea was a curatorial culling of tidbits found during Web wanderings. (The tradition is upheld today by BoingBoing, Kottke and many others.)
But there’s also a long tradition among bloggers of viewing blogs as the antidote to filters. In this view, the media are literally an unreliable middle-man who must be cut out. The media filter will get your age wrong or mangle your words or just not tell your story in the way you think it should be told. Now that anyone can publish, you don’t have to take this lying down. So today we have public figures like Mark Cuban blogging, putting his own statements and thoughts directly on the record.
Now comes Palin, trying to join this parade. The problem is, your typical ranter against the evil ways of the media filter is someone who has been covered for some time and has built up a critical mass of resentment at factual errors or misquotes.
But Palin? Who’s filtering her? She has spent her month as a major-party vice presidential candidate without holding a single press conference. She has submitted to a number of interviews that you could count on the fingers of a single hand, and still have fingers left over. Yet she has the chutzpah to gripe that she would happily “speak directly to the folks,” but the darned media filter keeps getting in her way!
No, Palin’s problem isn’t too much filter — it’s not enough signal.
Obviously Palin’s preference is for a media channel in which no one will interrupt her talking points or challenge her on a stumble or a lie. She longs for some sort of combination of blogging’s directness and the Olympian remoteness of a broadcast medium that brooks no challenge. “Let me talk to you without the filter,” she says, “but I won’t take questions.” Every politician would love that — but nearly all accept that they’re not going to get it.
Alas for Palin, we have not yet devised that ideal communication method which would bypass media filters and miraculously convey her vision directly directly to the American people via, say, telepathy (or even speaking in tongues). There simply is no such thing as “speaking directly to the American people” without also having the “mainstream media kind of telling viewers what they’ve just heard” right afterwards.
They did so right after that very debate that Palin said she “liked” for its directness, so go figure. It’s here, I think, that the unreadable-text problem grows insurmountable. For Palin, what we really need isn’t a filter but rather a text-unscrambler.
In any case, the spirit of blogging is all about mixing it up, posting and counterposting and dealing with critical comments. You get to “speak directly” — but so does everybody else. It’s not the equivalent of having no press conferences at all; it’s like having a continuous press conference in which everyone, officially credentialled or no, gets to ask questions. It would be fascinating to see Palin try speaking that directly.
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