November 23rd, 2009

For Sarah Palin and Tom Salmon It Was the Best of Weeks, But Also The Best of Weeks

by Philip Baruth

Last week was an astounding media phenomenon, nationally and locally. The biggest story in the country was Sarah Palin, a woman who begged the voters of Alaska to trust her with their state’s highest powers and responsibilities, only to quit halfway through her first term, either out of boredom or pique. But there she was, the relentless media focus. In Vermont, of course, it was State Auditor Tom Salmon, Jr.

Salmon has had a bad few weeks of it, and decided he’d seize the state’s various media outlets to boldly combine the isolated bad stories into one uplifting narrative of redemption and personal responsibility.

And the media readily complied.

Salmon’s most recent dust-up involves a DUI, although not an egregious case of public drunkenness: he blew a .086, just a shade over the legal limit.

And yet, for reasons of his own, Salmon decided that rather than downplay the sin, he’d amplify it. And in that way, he presented the media with an implicit bargain: Salmon was willing to publicly shame himself, if only the media would allow him wall-to-wall coverage that he might shape to his own ends.

If they would let him quote Dickens, and Aristotle, as well as speculate on the number and sort of drinks he’d downed on that fateful night. That sort of thing.

In short, Salmon not only discussed the story throughout the week with reporters, on the record, he scheduled a Friday press conference to more properly examine the tragic flaws in his own character.

And the Free Press not only covered that odd press conference, but duly ran a story beforehand, announcing that Salmon would in fact hold such a press conference (”Salmon To Address Personal Responsibility,” November 20). Which is unearned media at its very best: not only wall-to-wall coverage of your message, but an article alerting the public when they might expect your message.

How complete was the coverage? You can read Salmon’s entire autobiographical narrative, going back decades and moving up slowly through each distinct epoch of his life, on several of the state’s most prestigious news outlets. And my guess is that you’ll be able to do so for the better part of the coming year.

And if anyone had any doubt that Salmon’s campaign viewed the press conference and the footage it produced as anything less than solid gold, Salmon himself put all doubts to rest. Not only did his campaign film the press conference, Salmon freely admitted that he was crazy like a fox.

“It may have future value,” Salmon said of preserving his remarks for posterity. “We’re moving into an arena where we’re going to be able to put video pieces on the Web site.”

That’s right: the DUI has future value, if properly staged and spun.

It was tough for me to watch, in a way. I always liked Tom Salmon, and I’ve done a lot of work with the media, all forms of media, in the state. And for that matter, Sarah Palin seems like a decent sort, at one level.

But last week it was hard to deny that everybody seemed to be playing the same desperate game: the media latching on to Those Behaving Badly, and the Bad Boys and Girls hamming it up for all they were worth.

In one sad sense, it seemed all about traffic, plain and simple. Traffic and an absolutely ruthless economy.

But it was tough for me in another way.

About a month ago, my State Senate campaign held a full-on service event, out in Essex. We’d been working with the Executive Director of the Teen Center there, and we’d put together a massive volunteer project: refinishing the Center’s dance floor. It was Halloween morning, and the idea was an “Alternative Halloween.” Instead of smashing eggs and pumpkins, we’d get together with some area teens and do something productive.

We had about 20 volunteers show up, and we got it done.


And we sent out a small, discrete press release and a few emails to journalists, saying so.

No response. Nothing, from anyone. Not a squib. As far as the area’s media was concerned, the event never happened.

And there are all sorts of perfectly valid reasons why that might be so: maybe they were understaffed, maybe Halloween has too many events to cover, maybe they felt it was too early in the cycle to cover a campaign event. Or maybe service politics itself seemed somehow too overt a bid for campaign coverage, who can say.

And of course I’m a small fish, while Tom is a Salmon.

Still, it was hard to avoid the message last week, when all was said and done. Salmon was the undisputed media King, and Palin was the nation’s Queen, and last I checked neither one of them had done all that much for anyone, lately.