Ralph Brauer at Progressive Historians has written a thought-provoking analysis of major media outlets characterizing Sarah Palin as a "Populist." Brauer provides a counter-argument to this characterization based upon historical evidence.
Brauer's analysis is noteworthy for a few reasons. First, it provides another clear example of the ways in which the mass media -- in this case the New York Times and the New Yorker -- misrepresent history. This case is important because many national, regional, and local media outlets take interpretive cues from the NYT -- so, if the NYT publishes inaccuracies, they're much more likely to be perpetuated throughout the nation than if, say, Portland's Mid-County Memo published such a story.
Second, Brauer's article also shows another example of how shallow mass media news reporting can be. This shallowness is likely due to the deadline-driven nature of the news reporting cycle, which doesn't allow reporters sufficient time to go in to any depth on most things. This, in turn, is due both to the fundamental nature of news reporting, which has a very short-lived expiration date, and the fact that media companies are profit-driven, and so scoop-driven, which then drives reporters to publish something -- anything! -- on a given topic before the competition.
Third, Brauer's article shows that many, many people operate by simplifying, categorizing, and mythologizing current events in the light of a simplified, labeled, and mythologized history that carries with it a clear-cut narrative structure that aides in interpretation by condensing complex ideas into easy, bite-sized bits of caricature. This is lamentable to we historians, but it seems like such a wide-spread and profound propensity among us (Americans? Westerners? Homo Sapiens?) that I'll be writing about this much more in the coming weeks and months.
Specific sections of Brauer's article that are apropos:
"If Sarah Palin is not a Populist, is she the heir of William Jennings Bryan as both the Times and the New Yorker imply? In word, no. Actually, this comparison is even more ridiculous and dangerous than the Populist one. In their defense the two mass media giants could fall back on the muddled and watered-down contemporary understanding of populism, but in the case of comparing Palin to Bryan, the historical record allows no such leeway."
". . . one of the implied factors in the media comparison of Palin and Bryan has to do with the perception both are/were not exactly the brightest people to run for higher office . . .
"To imply Bryan lacked intelligence is to show a total lack of knowledge of his career. To understand this, forget that he delivered all his speeches from memory or extemporaneously or that he was one of the most feared debaters of his era (contrary to the image in [Stanley Kramer's melodramatic] Inherit the Wind), and go back to Bryan's first Congressional speech, which ranks as one of the most auspicious debuts in Congressional history.
It is a far cry from Sarah Palin's stumbling press interviews, her scripted speeches, and her lack of knowledge of domestic and world affairs."
"The speech also highlights yet another important contrast between Bryan and Palin--their values and vision. If anyone out there can tell me what Palin's vision is for America please feel free to comment--and please when you do so cite something she has said, not a paragraph from a ghost-written book."
"If Palin's supporters seem to go tongue-tied when asked to name specific policies she advocates, few people at the turn of the nineteenth century did not know what William Jennings Bryan supported. A major reason for this is Bryan's tireless advocacy for those issues."
Follow the comment thread on Brauer's piece for some illuminating insights into the issues.