Americans received a nice little history lesson this week, thanks to Sarah Palin’s video reaction to the shooting in Arizona. We were quickly informed by just about every national news outlet that the “blood libel” is generally used to historically mean the accusations that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals.
Now, I’m the first to say that the media could use more historical context in their work. A more careful study of history would help us understand the actual significance of events and how they play out over time. Perhaps we would then spend less time on the Justin Bieber tweet of the day and consider, for instance, what’s going on in Tunisia, Australia, Haiti and Lebanon this week. (The Onion‘s masterful headline captures this comparison with the headline “Standoff In Ivory Coast Threatens To Boil Over Into Full-Scale News Blurb”)
Back to Sarah Palin and “blood libel,” it’s hard to know how to start a thoughtful discussion. Why don’t we start with the beginning, when reporters thrust Palin and a map into the coverage of the shooting in Arizona. I do not consider myself a defender of Palin, but I wondered whether editors and reporters stopped to consider whether she was, in fact, relevant. And don’t give me headlines like “Twitter abuzz over Palin’s map.” Mainstream media outlets are supposed rise above and attempt to decide what actually matters in the grand scheme of things.
Editors and reporters could have asked similar questions over whether it was relevant to cover Westboro’s earlier announcement to protest 9-year-old Christina Green’s funeral. Now, don’t get me wrong. You could make a case for covering these angles, especially when it led to legislation in Arizona. But few outlets seemed to consider asking questions like “Is this really news? How predictable is this? Does Westboro have any influence without media coverage?” Are we asking these kinds of questions before we hit publish? I’m not suggesting Palin or Westboro don’t deserve any ink, but the level of coverage seemed disproportionate to other issues going on in the world.
Sadly, with diminishing newsrooms and a rush for page views, reporters are increasingly unable to cover all the beats, so why do we need outlets covering the same angles? Part of the problem might include the number of blogs media outlets are creating. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve been blogging nearly daily for several years and they definitely have their place. But I worry that reporters are spending their time posting the most minute details instead of allowing for long-term, big-picture, thoughtful coverage.
One of the bigger questions we have to start with is whether the media inserted Palin into the cycle unnecessarily. On Wednesday, though, you might argue that Palin inserted herself into the cycle when she posted a video reaction to the shooting. Most outlets zoned in on her “blood libel” comment, which led to article after article over reactions and outrage. Some of the coverage offered some good historical background, such as Laurie Goodstein’s piece for the New York Times. You could argue that Palin’s “blood libel” comment is worth noting, but how much coverage does it actually need before reporters squeeze every last angle out of it?
All of this brings me to one of the most confusing pieces I’ve seen come out of the Palin coverage. Matthew Cooper, a managing editor of the National Journal, suggests, “‘Blood Libel’ comment was likely used to fire up pro-Israel evangelicals.” Usually editors ask their writers to do some reporting, but it appears this one did very little.
After all, it’s not the first time Palin has aligned herself subtly with Jews. She has noted that after her election as governor in 2006, her childhood pastor suggested that she take the Bible’s Queen Esther as a role model. Esther was a beauty queen who became a fierce protector of the Jewish people. Palin is comfortable in the role of Esther, and many of her evangelical supporters see her in that guise, describing her as Esther-like. The multi-faith website Beliefnet called this phenomenon “Esther-mania.”
By adopting the blood libel language, Palin was most likely trying to pull another Esther–aligning herself with Jews, not denouncing them. It appears to have been a badly miscalculated effort, but it’s unlikely that it was her intention to offend.
“It was a dog whistle,” said one Jewish Republican who worked in the George H.W. Bush administration and declined to be named to avoid becoming enmeshed in the intraparty debate over Palin. The reference was to a device that’s silent to some ears but calls to others. “The media didn’t get it, but Christian activists did,” this source added.
Cooper’s one example to support his theory may not live up to what he’s imagined. For instance, Sarah Posner shoots back that Christians who identify with Esther usually aren’t identifying with Jews or Jewish history. Further, why does Cooper use one anonymous source to back up his theory? One of the first writers to use “blood libel” after the shooting was Glenn Reynolds in the Wall Street Journal. It would be interesting if a pro-gay marriage, pro-choice blogger was signaling evangelicals, wouldn’t it?
Unfortunately, Politico ‘s Jennifer Epstein only furthers this narrative with the headline “Some say ‘blood libel’ signaled base.” Apparently, all you need to do to get yourself in a Politico story is “float an idea” on a blog. Since when did reporters stop calling scholars or first-hand sources? Did anyone think to maybe ask an evangelical whether this might have served as a signal?
Reporters tend to whine about how Palin won’t do interviews with the mainstream media. On the other hand, they seem to wet their pants for every jot or tittle on Twitter. You might argue that she has a popular base, but how is she different from someone like Mike Huckabee, Glenn Beck, or someone else who has a media platform? Because she generates clicks? You would think that she was currently an elected official, a candidate for president, or something. Religion reporters especially should rise above the political filter the media generates.
Art: This xtranormal video came out last year teasing Politico’s coverage, but it serves as a nice critique of general media coverage.