In search of a ‘vileness/absurdity threshold’

IN SEARCH OF A ‘VILENESS/ABSURDITY THRESHOLD’…. Former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who seems unfulfilled unless she’s engaged in some kind of pointless feud, has decided to lash out wildly at an investigative journalist. The details aren’t especially interesting.

What is interesting is a question Greg Sargent raised in light of the latest Palin nonsense.

A question for fellow reporters and editors: At what point do Sarah Palin’s attacks and smears become so vile and absurd that they no longer merit attention? Is there such a point?

Palin, who has broken the mold in so many ways, has defied the laws of political and media gravity in another fashion: Despite the ever-mounting ridiculousness of her claims, she continues to get attention. This isn’t so with other figures. Frequently those who traffic in absurdity and smears to get media attention keep upping the ante until their assertions become so grotesque and self-parodic that they are no longer newsworthy.

It’s kind of like inflation: Keep printing more money and the value of it keeps dropping. That hasn’t happened with Palin.

Quite right. I’d quibble a little with Greg’s point about the applicability of the laws of political and media gravity — Newt Gingrich is mad as a hatter, but the political establishment still takes him seriously and showers him with the attention he craves — but the larger observation is compelling and persuasive. Palin just keeps getting more ridiculous, and there appears to be no breaking point. No matter how far she goes, there is no threshold to cross.

Making matters worse, the conspicuously unintelligent right-wing hero is shamelessly manipulating the media — refusing to engage in actual interviews, she puts out bizarre messages on Facebook, and major outlets pass the missives along to the public, stenography-style.

So, what’s a media professional to do?

I’ll concede that I’ve been torn over this. Regular readers may not believe it, but I only mention a small fraction of the Palin-related nonsense that crosses my radar screen. I wasn’t even going to mention the new feud against the investigative journalist.

I tend to keep an informal criterion in mind:

* Is Palin’s latest nonsense part of a larger argument, echoed by others, that’s likely to influence the national discourse?

* Is Palin’s latest nonsense related to an issue of national significance, including errors in need of correction?

* Is Palin’s latest nonsense deeply amusing, and further evidence of why her misguided minions need a new idol to follow?

To Greg’s point in particular, I think the problem is not just that Palin’s attacks and smears have become so vile and absurd that they no longer merit attention, but rather, that major media outlets pass along Palin’s vile and absurd attacks without telling the public that her nonsense is nonsense.

As long as she remains a credible candidate for national office, I can appreciate why news outlets make note of her inexplicable garbage. I don’t seriously expect a major paper or network to formally decide one day, “OK, that’s it. Palin is now officially too pathetic to cover.”

Sure, that’d be nice, but I know it’s not going to happen.

For me, the issue isn’t so much an attention threshold which, if Palin crosses it, she gets shunned. Rather, we need a credibility threshold which, if she crosses it, she becomes the humiliating laughingstock sensible people know her to be.

By most reasonable measures, Sarah Palin represents the very worst American politics has to offer — a dim-witted, right-wing, demagogic liar, worshipped by misguided millions. This would be far less painful if media professionals had the courage to stop playing stenographer, and start scrutinizing the substance — or lack thereof — behind her vile, child-like gibberish.

Ruth Marcus asked today whether there’s “value in pointing out that the empress has no clothes.” There is, but only if Marcus’ colleagues throughout the media are willing to be as candid.