Ten Years Ago, I Did an Interview with Sarah Palin. Sadly, It Helped Pave Trump’s Path to the Presidency
One of the many counterintuitive aspects of life is that the occasions which seem, at first, to be very positive, often end up creating the opposite result. This phenomenon seems to be increasingly common in the case of news events; for instance, the lasting impact of the initially successful invasion of Iraq on the George W. Bush administration, which is very similar to how the Republican Party is likely to eventually see Donald Trump’s upset of Hillary Clinton.
In my own professional life, there is no better (worse) example of this quirk of fate’s preferred modus operandi than something that happened ten years ago this week. I am referring to the news-making interview I did in Alaska with Sarah Palin, which is still to this day the most in-depth public discussion she has ever had about her famous 2008 run for the vice presidency.
To fully understand the significance of this happening, you need to remember the context of the time period. Because of the extraordinary ratings and content she provided, and due to the fact that she was effectively sequestered in Alaska (which, to the mainstream media, might as well have been Mars), Palin was both a media superstar as well completely inaccessible, and thus draped in mystery and intrigue.
Palin was also — largely because with John McCain’s loss there was no natural leader of the future GOP — considered a likely standard bearer for much of the Republican Party going forward. The mainstream media was practically salivating over the possibility of her running against Barack Obama in 2012, especially given that she would help them achieve all of their primary objectives, including his reelection.
I badly wanted to interview Palin because I had been working on my second documentary film, this one about the media coverage of the 2008 election, ever since the news coverage of Obama transformed into unabashed cheerleading for him early in that primary season. I strongly believed, having been a delegate to the GOP convention and having witnessed Palin’s blockbuster acceptance speech, that the unprecedentedly negative media coverage of her was both grossly unfair and largely inaccurate.
As a largely unknown documentarian (my first film, made for the conservative group Citizens United, had flopped commercially because it was largely premised on Hillary Clinton being the Democratic presidential nominee after it came out in mid-2008), it was a long-shot for Palin to agree to do her first major post-election interview with me. I am still uncertain how exactly it happened, especially since the political part of the Palin operation roundly rejected my proposal just after her state spokesperson had shockingly agreed to my request.
A second near-miracle occurred when I somehow got up to Alaska from Los Angeles just as a major snowstorm struck the upper Pacific coast, with my flight from Seattle barely making it off the ground in the middle of the night. When we finally got to Palin’s ice-caked home in Wasilla just a few hours later, the temperature was -5 degrees, and the two hours of sleep I got did nothing to help my horrible head cold.
The interview itself was spectacular (here are the highlights, and the entire interview can be viewed at the end of this free version of the film itself). I will go to my death believing that the person I met that day was the real Sarah Palin, and that she is dramatically different from how she is publicly perceived, or from the fake persona she created in order to appeal to the Republican base, stay famous, and get rich.
The media reaction to the interview was far beyond anything that even I had anticipated. I was immediately booked live on every cable news network, and eventually did highly-publicized in-studio interviews on The View and the Today show. At one point, Fox News ran almost the entire interview in primetime.
After the initial firestorm, Palin called me at home and we ended up having a conversation which, at the time, I felt good about, but which now I regret. When she expressed concern about being seen as “whining” about bad press coverage, I urged her to learn the lessons of George W. Bush and that, as a conservative, if you don’t fight back hard against negative media coverage, you will eventually be destroyed.
At the time, it never occurred to me that such a philosophy would eventually warp into the “Fake News!” mantra of today’s Republican Party, where all negative media coverage is automatically deemed false, as long as you fight back with enough energy. Not to overstate the importance of that moment or my minor role in it, but it is easy to draw a straight line from Palin forcefully taking on the media directly, and both Donald Trump’s rise to power, as well as the media’s total impotence to impact Republican views of his incompetent presidency.
Palin transformed herself into a “Tea Party” heroine and then, when that fad quickly faded, into a Trump-loving populist, even becoming the first major national figure to endorse him (an act for which she has been, in classic Trump style, completely unrewarded, possibly because Trump rightly sees her a potential threat because of her appeal within his “Cult 45”). It is obvious that Trump learned the lessons of the media’s destruction of Palin, but, much like how O.J. Simpson got away with murder by appealing to the history of racial injustice in Los Angeles, bastardized them for his own selfish and corrupt purposes.
In my defense, I saw the dangerous direction Palin was taking her train far earlier than just about anyone else, and at the start of the 2012 election cycle, I did my small part to try and derail it, telling our fascinating full story to The Daily Caller, for an expose that formerly rational Republican Tucker Carlson loved. Of course, even I failed to fully anticipate how the anti-media monster, which I had had played a part in creating, was already in the process of transforming the Republican Party into something which is now, rather ironically, more than worthy of the same negative media coverage which helped spawn its ugly transformation in the first place.
John Ziegler is a senior columnist for Mediaite. He hosts a weekly podcast focusing on news media issues and is documentary filmmaker. You can follow him on Twitter at @ZigManFreud or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.