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Sarah Palin goes into overtime in dispute over Letterman's crude joke

June 12, 2009 |  8:50 am

The battle between media heavyweights Gov. Sarah Palin and comedian David Letterman is going into overtime, beyond the usually allotted 15 minutes of fame.

Appearing this morning on NBC’s “Today” show, the Alaska governor and favorite of the conservative wing of the GOP again demanded that Letterman apologize to women for a joke the television host made about one of her daughters getting "knocked up." Those wanting a quick look back, should check out our original post.

Letterman has said that the joke about a Palin daughter getting pregnant by a Yankee baseball player was in poor taste (probably not the first such bad joke Letterman has told and arguably not the most distasteful).

Still, Palin contends that the target was her 14-year-old daughter, Willow, who was the only daughter with her at Yankee Stadium last weekend. That makes the questionable quip a comment about statutory rape. It’s “a degrading comment about a young woman,” Palin said this morning. “And I would hope that people would start really rising up and not accepting this.”

 “It’s no wonder girls have such low self-esteem in America when a comedian can make a remark like this,” the former vice presidential candidate said.

Now, in normal circumstances, a slugfest between a talk show host, who is facing his own problems from a new competitor at NBC’s "The Tonight Show," and a former candidate for vice president (this society doesn’t even care about vice presidents when they are in office) would be about as interesting as a healthcare policy debate between athletes on steroids. 

But hang in, there are real concerns here.

Palin is a potential presidential candidate who can’t afford to be fighting with anyone in her party, which polls show is about as popular as ants at a July Fourth picnic. Even worse, none can say who actually speaks for Republicans, fractured into more pieces than taffy dropped from the roof of a building. 

The Alaska governor and her allies argued during the campaign that the media were an enemy, so who better to attack than a media icon like Letterman, with a hip (read: liberal) audience.

The big complaint by Palin and others was that the media never took her seriously, in part because she was a woman, and set verbal traps for her. In truth, there were numerous comparisons of her to Tina Fey and much of the reporting dealt with her gaffes in interviews or her use of the winsome wink during her debate with then-Sen., now Vice President Joe Biden.

So fighting a man over a demeaning comment about women makes political sense as well as giving Palin a well-publicized shot at being a mother protecting her young; she famously said during her Republican convention speech that the only difference between a hockey mom and a pitbull was lipstick. This is a win-win for all of her constituencies.

And, to be honest, NBC doesn't mind stoking an embarrassing controversy involving its CBS competition.

Too much, you say, about a joke that at most went bad like three-day mayonnaise? 

Perhaps. But television is today’s arena of public debate in society – and it is not just the Sunday morning talk shows. It is every show, every network, every celebrity, every politician. Why else would President Obama, no slouch at the ratings game himself, do Jay Leno’s show or joke about Conan O’Brien? 

Not even today’s switch to digital, which could throw about 2 million people out of the free television arena, will change the truth that television portrayal is as important to politics as it is to advertising – and some would say that is the same thing.

You betcha, mister.

– Michael Muskal

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