Can the mainstream media win back middle America?

The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK - Whatever their other contributions to politics and the nation, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and Sen. Barack Obama have been crack for the news business. Across the spectrum, viewership, Internet traffic and readership are way up during this interminable election season.

But what happens when it's over? Will there be enough news to sustain the bounce? And that persistent obstacle: How can the mainstream media improve their image?

These were some of the questions addressed by panelists at a Time Warner media summit here this week. The answer may be right under their noses: Sarah Palin.

Love her or hate her, Mrs. Palin has done for media ratings what she did for the Republican base. Her debate with Joe Biden was the most-watched cable TV show for viewers ages 18 to 34, according to Jonathan Klein, president of CNN/U.S.

Mr. Obama has had a similar effect. But whereas the mainstream media are widely viewed as being pro-Obama, the same MSM are viewed as being hostile toward Mrs. Palin. It is possible to be critical of Mrs. Palin's lack of qualifications and experience without conveying contempt, but that hasn't always been the case. Early attacks on Mrs. Palin's personal life and family values were perceived as unfair by those who already viewed the media skeptically.

As someone who moves between home in the rural South and inside the Washington Beltway, I get more than an off-the-bus glimpse of the Palin phenomenon. Inside the Beltway, I've often felt like Jane Goodall, summoned from the hinterlands to explain the behaviors of the indigenous peoples. Back home at my local grocery checkout counter, most of the other folks in line don't know or care how Tina Fey totally owns Sarah Palin. They only know that their food costs too much, and gas prices are making the trip to work prohibitive.

So how do the media win back the trust and respect of this segment of the population? Mr. Klein said media folk need to get out of their bubble and find out what people think. Indeed.

After George W. Bush won re-election in 2004, few were more baffled than the media. In the South and flyover country, almost no one was surprised.

The gap has only grown wider in the years since as an ever-expanding new media permits people to ratify their own worldview without straying far afield or tapping into a well of shared information.

The result is greater partisan division, greater allegiance to bullet-point thinking, less mutual understanding. As panelist Peggy Noonan commented, "You lose something in the nation when you're cut into as many small pieces as America is. There's no boring old central reality that we can all argue over."

That is surely true. But there is a boring old central reality that characterizes the lives of the many Americans who are not perpetually plugged in. Their narrative may lack a dramatic arc, but it deserves respect. It's called paying the bills, getting the kids schooled and fed, and trying to keep a rapacious culture at bay.

These are the folks who have found light in Sarah Palin and who have been a major part of the Palin frenzy. They will vote the McCain ticket regardless of whether Palin can rattle off Supreme Court cases with which she disagrees. They recognize themselves in her. To them, her lack of polish and knowledge feels like an absence of slickness and glibness.

The Palin phenomenon and the mainstream media problem are of a piece.

Contempt for one's audience is not a sure way to its heart. Mrs. Palin's people feel that contempt, and they have identified its source as the enemy.

Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is kparker@

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