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Reporting Palin

Readers of this site know that I have always had a great deal of respect and admiration for Sun-Times reporter Abdon Pallasch. He's one of the city's best reporters and I've stated before that he could be even better if his employer was a bit more savvy about its operation. But I'm going to have to go ahead and disagree with Pallasch about his defense on Sunday of his account last week about Sarah Palin.

In a vacuum, some of what Pallasch wrote would be true. But he's missing, in my view, the context in which his reporting appeared. And in some cases, I just think he's wrong.

Let's take a look.

"I've been attacked by conspiracy theorists of the left and right this past week - like most weeks," Pallasch writes to open his piece.

By classifying critics of his reporting as conspiracy theorists, he marginalizes those - including me - who saw his description of Palin's appearance just the latest example of the media's sexist and patronizing prism through which they view her. I'm sure many conspiracy theorists voiced their complaints to Pallasch, but to not acknowledge that some complaints came from, for example, offended women is offensive in itself.

"Mentioning that Sarah Palin wore a leather jacket, a short black skirt and her hair down when she spoke in Chicago on Wednesday before a massive American flag proves I'm a chauvinist or a liberal because I'd never mention what President Obama wears or his hair!" Pallasch wrote.

His defense:

"When Obama introduced Joe Biden as his vice-presidential nominee in Springfield, I noted both men were dressed casually in shirt-sleeves. I wrote that Obama wore suits made by Hartmarx in Des Plaines and that the company might be closing. Nobody complained."

First, the media's obsession with appearance is in itself disturbing. And guess what? These stories are accompanied by photos, if not video. A description isn't necessary, nor usually relevant, no matter what they teach at Medill, where Pallasch writes that he was "taught to include sights, sounds and smells so readers feel like they were there at the event." Was he ever taught to ask himself who cares if two guys are dressed in shirt-sleeves?

The fact that Obama wore a Hartmarx suit, though, was actually relevant: It was meant to send a political message. That's hardly the equivalent of mentioning that Palin wore a skirt (and it was first reported as a mini-skirt, until corrected), unless the skirt was made by Hartmarx.


"Google 'Obama,' 'Pallasch' and 'haircut' and you'll find stories I wrote about Obama getting his hair cut at the Hyde Park Hair Salon. (People questioned the newsworthiness of his haircuts, and I have to agree.)"

Again, writing about the local place where the president gets his haircut is hardly the same as noting that Palin wore her hair down. One is a slice of local flavor, though I also would question its newsworthiness; the other is simply a description thrust upon women - like the obsession over Michelle Obama's fashion choices or Hillary Clinton's hairstyles back in the day - that demean them by reducing them to sexual and aesthetic objects. Duh, this has been a criticism of the media for decades. (In Alaska, Palin used to wear her hair up a lot be "less attractive" so the media wouldn't focus on her looks.)


"When I quoted Palin saying Illinois' corrupt politicians remind her of the ones she ran out of office 'back home in Alaaahhhska,' I wasn't simply giving readers the sights and sounds of the event. I was trying 'to make her appear less than intelligent,' one reader e-mailed me."

Really? Pallasch would have to have been living in a cave for the last three years to not know that making fun of Palin's accent has been one of the chief ways she has been caricatured as an idiot. But as I've written several times before, that's the way people talk in her part of Alaska, just as it's the way people talk in Minnesota. "You betcha" is an old Minnesota saying. People there aren't stupid.

"I wrote that Obama had a distinctive way of pronouncing 'PAHK-i-stahn.'"

It's not distinctive so much as its "correct." Obama's pronunciation of Pakistan is akin to a politician correctly pronouncing foreign words as a show of respect; it was a empathetic signal to that region of the world. Obama has plenty of linguistic tics, though, that no one makes fun of. Not that they should, but to chide Palin for her accent is the worst kind of elitism - ignorant and unwarranted.

"I mentioned it neutrally, not disapprovingly, not making him out to sound 'unintelligent,' just like with Palin, who has a distinctive way of saying 'Alaska,' lingering on the 'l' and the second 'a' - not as much as Tina Fey's exaggerated version of it, but enough that it caught my ear Wednesday."

Without Tina Fey, you might not have reported it at all! You know, the Tina Fey who makes fun of Palin in part by exaggeratin' her accent to make her sound stupid.


"When Palin walked onto the stage in Rosemont wearing a leather jacket, a short black skirt and saying she liked being called a 'redneck,' I thought that was interesting and readers might want to know that, in addition to what she said on the issues."

She's been wearing a leather jacket ever since I can remember. Thank God she doesn't wear the official red suits of Washington. Let's make fun of those. Or hasn't the media been granted permission - by itself - to do that?


"When Kagan appeared on stage in Chicago two weeks ago with the man she hopes to replace, Justice John Paul Stevens, guess whose wardrobe I mentioned? Not hers. I noted that Stevens tried on a Cubs jacket over his white shirt and bow tie."

A woman in her usual garb giving a speech is hardly the equivalent of a Supreme Court justice donning a Cubs jacket. C'mon.


The problem isn't so much that Abdon Pallasch is Neanderthal, because he's not. He's top-notch. But his account just goes to show how much the media absorbs from each other and then regurgitates without thinking about what it is doing.

And in this case, it's particularly tiresome because describing a woman's appearance has been an issue for so long; I think I was taught that at my journalism school - 20 years ago.

Finally, it's beyond aggravating because the most blatantly sexist attacks on Palin come from the supposedly tolerant and feminist forces of the left - the same elitist hypocrites who similarly savaged Hillary Clinton on behalf of Barack Obama.

Feel free to dislike Sarah Palin for her political stances, but please don't dislike her because she's a woman with whom you disagree. Using her gender (and her accent, which liberals would find endearing - along with the leather jacket - if she was on their side) against her ought not be part of the program.


Comments welcome.


1. Amanda K writes:

Thanks so much for your retort to Abdon Pallasch's original article as well as his defense. As a woman, it makes me crazy to hear a blow by blow account of what women wear, their make-up, their hair in the media. Report what she says, and by all means disagree with it, but do not mock how she speaks. Sarah Palin is not dumb - and while I cannot agree with what she says, I do not feel it is kosher to attack her on her clothing, make-up and accent along with her politics.

It makes me crazier when "progressives" feel its ok to attack her fashion as a legitimate issue - and when you disagree with that, they react as if you are chanting "Drill Baby Drill!"

Anyway, thanks for making me not feel as though I am crazy for being able to separate my political arguments with a woman's right to dress however she so chooses.

2. Paul Mollica writes:

I tell folks that if Sarah Palin were a liberal-populist from the frontier, they'd be celebrating the very quirks (the hunting, the SnoCat, the clutch of kids with bizarre first names, the clothes, etc.) that they're now deriding.

Part of what made Ann Richards so popular with libs was her charisma, that she came from the Southwest and seemed "authentic."


Posted on May 17, 2010

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