Sarah Palin's new series on Fox News, "Real American Stories," celebrates such unobjectionable qualities as generosity and perseverance. In the debut episode, which aired last Thursday, Palin interviewed an 11-year-old boy with cerebral palsy whose service dog inspired him to learn to walk and a young woman who saved an oil tanker driver from a fire.
The fact that the program debuted amid a cloud of controversy, despite its heartwarming material, underscores the alchemic effect of the former Alaska governor. It seems every move by the onetime Republican vice presidential nominee triggers a furor, even as she seeks to broaden her appeal through new media ventures, including a docu-series about Alaska for the cable channel TLC slated for later this year.
In this case, Palin's mere presence as host of "Real American Stories" was the instigating factor. After Fox News announced earlier this week that the premiere would feature rapper LL Cool J and country music star Toby Keith, representatives for both performers took pains to note that they had not sat down for interviews with Palin.
Rather, the network planned to incorporate old interviews they did for a related online project also called "Real American Stories," launched before Palin joined the network as a contributor this year.
Fox News ultimately cut the footage of LL Cool J from the episode.
The interview with Keith about the inspiration behind his song "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" remained in the show, in a piece voiced over by Palin. Elaine Schock, a spokeswoman for the musician, said that the network had the right to show the footage, taken in early 2009, but that she would have preferred to be asked whether Keith wanted to participate.
"Obviously, with Sarah Palin, some people like her, some people don't," Schock said. "It would have been a discussion we would have had."
The back-and-forth illustrates the Palin effect.
"I think the instant read on it is that she's this radioactive presence," said Rebecca Traister, a writer for Salon whose book about women and the 2008 election, "Big Girls Don't Cry," is coming out this fall. "But this also speaks to something else: Sarah Palin electrifies every circumstance she gets near. This is a woman who stopped running for vice president a year and a half ago, who stopped being governor of a state almost a year ago, and yet she's all anyone wants to talk about. This is a kind of cultural power."
The attention may prove to be a mixed blessing. Because Palin is such a lightning rod, some celebrities are wary about being associated with even uncontroversial projects such as "Real American Stories," noted Jeffrey McCall, a communications professor at DePauw University in Indiana.
"It's not a particularly politically charged show, but she's a politically charged person," he said. "Given that Sarah Palin has been a major player on the political scene and has some really specific views on divisive issues, it's hard to have her do a program that goes right down the middle, regardless of the intent."
Fox News originally launched "Real American Stories" in 2008 as an online project featuring average Americans and well-known figures with inspiring stories. The network eventually decided to package the material as a television show. Palin signed on to host when she joined the network.