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Mainstream media look for love

Whatever their other contributions to politics and the nation, Sarah Palin and 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 last week -- "Politics 2008: The Media Conference for the Election of the President." The answer may be right under their noses. Sarah Palin.

Love her or hate her, 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.

Obama has had a similar effect.

Jim VandeHei, executive editor of Politico, reported that traffic on politico.com is "exponentially higher" for Palin- and Obama-related stories.

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

To those folks, it is laughable when the media ask themselves, "Are we too elitist?" The answer seems to be implicit in the question.

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? Klein said media folk need to get out of their bubble and find out what people think.

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. How does that work?

The gap has 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 said, "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 their story is familiar and 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. 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.

Therein lies the answer to the media's self-inquiry. Contempt for one's audience is not a sure way to its heart. Palin's people feel that contempt and they have identified its source as the enemy.

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