I don't often jump to Sarah Palin's aid, as I generally feel that the holes she falls in are the ones she's dug, but the current controversy is so unfair that I couldn't ignore it any longer.
I'll catch you up on it, if you need it - this last Sunday, "Family Guy" premiered an episode called 'Extra-Large Medium,' the storyline of which was that one of the main characters, Chris, went on a date with a character with Down Syndrome. I thought, in and of itself, it wasn't that bad an episode, but the Down Syndrome parts of it threw me. "Family Guy" clearly knew they were on thin ice and pulled all their punches - a few off-hand jokes during a song Stewie sang called "Down Syndrome Girl", and that was it - so the parts featuring the character were generally laugh-free in every aspect. I remember watching the episode and at the beginning saying "why do this?" and at the end saying "why do it this way? If you're going to do it, go for it and try to make people laugh, or don't do it at all. Why do it halfway?" Apparently, the answer is: do it halfway so that you can end up being defended by the media and come out looking rosy on the other side.
There's a joke in the show where Chris asks the girl what her parents do, and she answers that her mother is "the former governor of Alaska." And there are ways that's not an offensive joke. If the joke is "Sarah Palin is stupid," then that's acceptable - Palin has that reputation and that's fair game for jokes. But that's not the joke. The joke is that Sarah Palin has a baby with Down Syndrome, which is probably caused by the fact that Sarah Palin is stupid. And that's truly offensive.
Despite what the media outlets reporting the story seem to think, Palin is well within her rights to defend herself about this. This isn't simply being thin-skinned - having a child with Down Syndrome is a tremendous struggle for a family, and regardless of whether or not Palin is a public figure, comments like this should always be off-limits. The reason people haven't gathered in her corner over this is because she's Sarah Palin, and somehow doesn't qualify for our outrage. The "Family Guy" characters aren't the only ones perceived as cartoon characters here.
Put it this way: if a more respected politician had a child with Down Syndrome - President Obama, for example - and there was a TV show that made a crack at that kid in even the vaguest way, can you even imagine what sort of holy hell would be unleashed upon them? People would be lining the streets in protest, and if Obama then spoke out against that show and denounced its insensitivity, the internet would flood with articles praising him as a brave father defending his children and the rights of children with Down Syndrome everywhere.
Instead, "Family Guy" creator Seth MacFarlane went on "Real Time With Bill Maher" last night and laughed off Palin's comments, while Maher referred to Palin as "The Queen of Fake Outrage", referencing her calling out Letterman for making a joke about her fourteen-year-old daughter probably being pregnant by a thirty-year-old man (and how dare she make a stink about that?). Both seemed to feel that since the actress who played the character had Down Syndrome and was fine with the show, and seemed to be living a happy, contented life, Palin's arguments hold no water. Which, of course, misses the point entirely. What does the quality of life of the actress playing the character have to do with a harsh joke against a member of a politician's family, regardless of the fact that they have the same condition? It's terrible journalism to make that piece the focus of the story when the real issue is the joke, not the character.
Of course, if we're going to talk about bad journalism, we have to mention the fact that when the news broke that the actress who played the character, Andrea Fay Friedman, had called Palin out for having no sense of humor, it wasn't mentioned that the actress had the same condition as her character. Once that was uncovered, the stories started scripting the controversy as a Sarah Palin vs. Actress With Down Syndrome, as if that was really what's going on here. Most news stories are now running a picture of Palin and Friedman side-by-side, to give the impression that this is some sort of showdown between them. Naturally, the stories exempted anything that could sway perception in Palin's favor, such as:
a. Friedman seems to deeply dislike Palin, and almost every news outlet cut off the quote before her denouncement of the politician later in the letter, where she says "my mother did not carry me around under her arm like a loaf of French bread the way former Governor Palin carries her son Trig around looking for sympathy and votes." Friedman is certainly entitled to her opinion here, especially on this issue, but of course that quote would never be reported since it means that Friedman couldn't be portrayed as a victim anymore. For all the posturing that "Family Guy" treated Friedman and her character like any other human being, news outlets haven't shown the same disgression.
b. Even if Friedman says "I was making fun of Sarah Palin, not her son," that doesn't take the show off the hook. She didn't write those lines, the show's writers did, and to put the actress' face on them in the press is disingenuous. It doesn't matter what her intent was, it matters what the show's intent was. Yet I have yet to read a single article that's addressed this in any way. Apparently, once the actress spoke the lines, the show was absolved of all blame.
Not to mention that most articles have used this story to reference older Palin stories to discredit her - particularly her calling out Rahm Emmanuel for using the word "retard" but giving a pass to Rush Limbaugh - as if that had anything to do with anything. The throughline being "just in case you were going to side with Sarah Palin on this issue, here's a list of reasons she can't be trusted." And these are news stories. It's the equivalent of newspapers and news outlets covering the State of the Union by saying "President Obama, who once said he thought there were 57 states in the union and has consistently mixed up what exactly U.S. foreign policy has historically been in interviews, addressed Congress tonight to explain his plan for our government in the coming year." Evidently, we only notice a lack of journalistic integrity when it deals with politicians we like.
Two years ago, I though the Republican party was in complete disarray and didn't see any way that it could resurrect itself anytime soon. I now understand that the party doesn't have to do a thing: news outlets will just keep picking at it incessantly without justification until more than 50% of the country says "y'know, none of these arguments seem to hold any water. I think I'm gonna side with the other guys."