I do not care very much about former Alaska governor Sarah Palin's waning influence on American political life. But I confess an ongoing fascination with Palin as a media phenomenon. As she vacillates between the Fox News stints that keep her political clout alive and the reality television gigs that seem like a more natural fit for her talents, I always wonder whether this is the moment that she will commit to a single path.
The debut of the Sarah Palin Channel, a subscription-based multimedia site that Palin and her team launched Monday, is a disappointing combination of these muddled ambitions. A bland combination of relatively predictable red meat for her political base and relatively mundane home videos, the Sarah Palin Channel suggests that Palin still wants both reality television money and Republican Party influence.
Some of the videos suggest one way Palin might have a real and positive impact on the media culture she so frequently decries: opening up the lives of families raising children with disabilities. But the overall effort suggests that she lacks the focus to seize this opportunity for a more limited, but more enduring impact.
In previous Palin family attempts to make it in reality television, Bristol Palin brought Lifetime producers into her life as a single mother and hit the "Dancing With the Stars" stage. Todd Palin participated in a military-themed competition show.
Palin herself showed off the Alaskan wilderness, even if that sometimes meant she got stuck on a tough stretch of Mount McKinley.
In comparison with these efforts, there is a crabbed and scattered quality to the early videos on the Sarah Palin Channel. Palin stands in a hotel room before giving a speech in Denver, showing the camera the binder that holds her speech, though not the process of putting it together. As Time critic James Poniewozik notes, she promises to show us her kitchen garden while shredding grocery store lettuce, but somehow, she never quite gets there. For almost seven minutes, we watch Palin hang out with her son Trig, who has Down syndrome.
It is only this last clip that gives us any of the sort of media innovation that Palin promises. "Glee" and "American Horror Story" creator Ryan Murphy has created several roles for actors with Down syndrome in recent years, but people with the condition are almost entirely absent from other popular media. Stories about people on the autism spectrum have become more prevalent, but even there, it is a rare show like "Parenthood" that acknowledges that an autism spectrum diagnosis brings genuine challenges instead of simply conferring genius-level intelligence.
Watching Palin read to and play with Trig is a genuinely affecting display of emotion and patience. And when Palin discusses the teachers and therapists who work with children like Trig, helping him learn to speak and eat solid food, her concern and hopes for him are both modest and clear. If Palin were going to embark on a focused media career, this is a place where she could tell stories that are often excluded from mass culture and where she could make a genuinely significant difference.
But the whole point of the Sarah Palin Channel is that she is not, that Sarah Palin contains multitudes, that Sarah Palin wants to preserve all of her options, however little interest she appears to have in pursuing some of them. And particularly when Palin is trying to be politically provocative, the results feel awfully threadbare and mean-spirited in a way her videos with and about Trig are not.
In an "Image of the Day," the site offers up a photo of children with guns, splashed with text that asks "Hey Barack, When are you gonna Tell the Middle East to Stop Clinging to Their Guns & Religion?" In talking about immigration, we hear Palin argue that "It's kind of the battered wife saying 'No más!'" in explaining that the current border crisis has pushed her to support an effort to impeach the president.
This has always been the great contradiction of Palin's career. When she arrived on the national stage, Palin's family members and her fluidity in talking about them were a significant part of her early appeal. But Palin also got plenty of clear signals that there were rewards to be had in playing to ugly, inflammatory political narratives, and she did not stint in pursuing them.
The Sarah Palin Channel displays both this strength and this weakness. The latter aspect of her personality might be what brings in subscribers willing to pay $9.95 a month to feel as though they are tweaking the mainstream media. But it is in the former part of herself that Palin might have been able to make a real difference, if only she had chosen to do so.