Inside Sarah Palin’s War On The Media

The press release was classic Palin. You can hear the twang of her voice when you read it: Governor Palin says to Media, “There you go again.”

Governor Sarah Palin: "I feel like these individuals and entities have much better things to do..."

Governor Sarah Palin: "I feel like these individuals and entities have much better things to do..."

The missive from the governor’s office addressed “news organizations [pursuing] erroneous and often outrageous leads on a variety of non-issues.”  It came after an excerpt of an interview with Palin from an upcoming film entitled Media Malpractice… How Obama Got Elected was released on YouTube. The interview clips saturated the national news, and in it the governor lashed out at the perceived media bias against her, as she did in the press release. A few days later excerpts from an interview from late December appeared on Esquire’s website, again bashing bloggers and the news media as a whole.

The governor’s press release cites a Politico story entitled “Palin: Media Goes Easy on Kennedy” as “particularly troubling.”  In the release, the governor’s quoted as saying, “I was not commenting at all [in the documentary] on Caroline Kennedy as a prospective U.S. senator, but rather on the seemingly arbitrary ways in which news organizations determine the level and kind of scrutiny given to those who aspire to public office.”

“I think the governor has some legitimate grievances with the way the media has treated her overall, but I think her office is barking up the wrong tree,” says Politico’s national politics editor Charles Mahtesian. “While we were one of the first to report on that interview, our story really just focused on the notion that the governor believed there was a double standard. Naturally we would stand by our story, because at no point did it mention anything about Caroline Kennedy’s credentials. I think they collared the wrong suspect in this case, but we understand the nature of the political arena.”

It does seem odd that Politico is criticized for reporting on statements the governor made herself in a documentary film, but it’s characteristic of an administration that feels—perhaps justifiably—under siege by the media.

The offending parties, in the governor’s view, range from anonymous bloggers to the Anchorage Daily News to the Associated Press, and far beyond. It’s a “laundry list” of offenses, according to the governor. Of course, it’s a battle she seems to perpetuate by making appearances such as the one from the documentary film—although the governor’s communications director, Bill McAllister, says, “It was not the governor’s intention to be in the national news on these subjects now.”

“I can’t pick a fight with those that buy ink by the barrel full,” she said while campaigning in Wisconsin in October. Yet, in the documentary and subsequent press release, she certainly seems determined to fight back at the perceived injustices.

Governor Palin and the Anchorage Daily News had a very public back-and-forth in the last week over a reporter’s efforts to definitively report on the persistent rumor that young Trig Paxson Van Palin is not really the governor’s son, that her pregnancy was somehow faked.

ADN editor Pat Dougherty published an email exchange between him and the governor on his blog after the “There you go again” release was issued. In the exchange, he explains “I finally decided, after watching this go on unabated for months, to let a reporter try to do a story about the ‘conspiracy theory that would not die’ and, possibly, report the facts of Trig’s birth once and for all.” Dougherty calls the rumor “nutty nonsense,” and says that he wanted his reporter, Lisa Demer, to “report the facts of Trig’s birth thoroughly enough to kill the nonsense once and for all.”

“That’s a disingenuous response,” Palin tells the Press. “I’ve said from day one, no, you guys are off-base in chasing this lie. Of course Trig’s my son. My doctor’s said the same thing. My medical summary that was released was the same information. We stated the truth, and Pat knows that. I feel like these individuals and entities have much better things to do than continue to try to put to rest this scandalous ridiculous rumor that some in the media continue to try to chase down.”

“I would pose this question to Gov. Palin and Bill McAllister,” Dougherty responded to the Press in an email (also subsequently posted on his blog). “The Daily News ignored the Trig controversy for more than four months. Not only has the paper never written a story about it, until last month no one at the ADN had ever done any serious reporting on it. If the Daily News were interested in proving the ‘conspiracy’ surrounding Trig’s birth as straight news, why would we wait three or four months to start looking into it? Because that’s how we usually handle news? Hardly. Is it really so implausible that we watched this conspiracy theory swirl and grow and show no sign of going away for months until we finally decided to report a story about the persistence of bizarre claims surrounding the birth of the governor’s son? I think most competent journalists would recognize ‘the persistence of bizarre claims surrounding the birth of the governor’s son’ as the basis of a potentially interesting story. Most competent journalists would also understand that the story doesn’t work if it can’t show definitively that the claims are false. It’s only a ‘bizarre conspiracy theory’ if you can show that it’s not true, which is why we wanted to document the truth. Why this isn’t obvious to Bill McAllister I can’t explain.”

McAllister says that although the paper didn’t run a story previously on the Trig rumor, ADN reporter Kyle Hopkins was aggressively questioning him about the matter on August 30 and 31, the two days immediately after McCain chose Palin to run as the GOP’s vice presidential candidate. “They didn’t run anything, but they were definitely interested.”

“Let me give you a couple examples,” Palin offers, regarding the media coverage she finds offensive. “Channel 11, Matthew Simon, asking me to comment on the Alaskans who were so disappointed in me for, quote, throwing the state under the bus. And I said, ‘Matthew, what are you talkin’ about?’ He says, ‘you were on [Saturday Night Live] and you laughed during a parody when Eskimos, actors playing Eskimos, came out on stage, you laughed during that, throwing the state under the bus.’ And I said, ‘Matthew, if there’s any suggestion there that, um, I’m racist, this is ridiculous.’ My husband happens to be Eskimo; my kids are Eskimo. I wasn’t throwing anybody under the bus. I said, ‘Matthew, who is your source on that?’ And he said it was anonymous. I said, ‘eh, enough said.’ So there’s one example.”

KTVA Channel 11 news director Staci Feger says, “My comment would be simple. Our job as journalists is to research the issues and ask questions—it’s up to the interviewee how or if they chose to answer.”

And the governor’s office has many more issues with media coverage, according to her communications staff. Among them (from a list provided by McAllister):

“The Associated Press falsely reported that the governor had never signed a Juneteenth proclamation. She did so in 2008. The AP refused to correct the story, using the excuse that they had issued a late ‘write-through,’ even though that was not picked up by any newspapers. USA Today, among other publications, ran the false information.”

“Various publications, largely driven by the Associated Press, have given voice to critics of the governor who say she’s a racist. This is despite the fact that she has a deputy chief of staff, a special assistant and a communications director—members of her inner circle—of various non-Caucasian ethnicities.”

“Associated Press claimed Governor had travel documents altered after being named VP running mate. False.”

“Associated Press claimed Kris Perry was costing the state $1,000 day to staff the governor. Speculation.”

“Associated Press claimed the AGIA process was flawed.”

The AP, via spokesman Paul Colford, declined to comment on the administration’s complaints.

ADN columnist, conservative talk radio host, and frequent Palin critic Dan Fagan was also criticized for a column that recently ran in the Daily News.

“Dan Fagan asserted in his column in the Daily News last Sunday that in some unspecified way the governor managed to get Levi Johnston a job he was not qualified for. Levi’s father later clarified that he, as an ASRC employee, got his son the job without any assistance from the governor. It took the Daily News five days to correct Fagan’s assertion that federal regulations require a high school degree for an apprenticeship.”

Levi Johnston, is, of course, the father of Palin’s new grandson Tripp. After Fagan’s column ran, Johnston quit his North Slope apprenticeship, which did require a high school diploma.

Fagan explains, “the ASRC apprenticeship program had to come up with criteria, then they submit that to the labor department for certification. Once they submit that criteria, they have to live up to that criteria. Technically I should have worded it better and said that because ASRC came up with this criteria, the federal government requires that they enforce it. It’s obviously smoke and mirrors on [the administration’s] part.”

KTUU news director Steve Mac Donald, whose coverage the administration criticized as well, says, “I don’t feel the media is at odds with the governor. I think we’ve been fair with her. Things certainly did change on August 29th when she was named to the GOP ticket. We’ve never had a politician in Alaska like her. She is a national figure and will play a major role in the national political scene. While I wish there were a few things we could do over in our coverage of her, I believe we’ve done a good job overall.”

In the excerpts from the documentary that were released last week, Palin criticized CBS anchor Katie Couric, and says that in the infamous interviews she did with her during the campaign, she knew things weren’t going well after the initial session and wanted to cancel the remainder but the campaign insisted she continue. “Because of however it works in that upper echelon of power brokering in the media and with spokespersons, it was told to me that yeah, we are going to go back for more. And going back for more was not a wise decision either,” Palin tells conservative-talk-radio-personality turned documentary filmmaker John Ziegler.

But agreeing to do the interview with Ziegler may not have been the wisest decision either. “We thought it was going to be low key, frankly,” McAllister, the governor’s spokesman, says.

Ziegler told him that the interview was for a documentary that will premier at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C. at the end of February, and McAllister neither expected nor wanted clips to flood the airwaves in the middle of last week.

“[Ziegler] was doing a documentary to present to a conservative group at a meeting in Washington six weeks from now. That didn’t seem like a hot event,” McAllister says. “That’s obviously a month after the inauguration, obviously a lot more time has passed [since the election]; Obama’s now president; some of these other outstanding political questions like the vacancy in the U.S. senate seat in New York will be resolved by then. It was a complete surprise to us that he pulled excerpts and put them on YouTube. It was not the governor’s intention to be in the national news on these subjects now. Absolutely not.”

Ziegler claims that McAllister wasn’t in the loop, because this wasn’t a state issue. “This was done at her home on her own time,” Ziegler writes in an email. “This was simply an understandable miscommunication caused by the pressure on the governor to keep state matters separate from those dealing with the campaign.”

Introducing the clips, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews referred to “the vice presidential campaign that won’t end,” a characterization that McAllister says was hypocritical, as Matthews had recently called him asking for an interview.

“If it’s so objectionable, why do you want to interview her?” McAllister asks. “This is the double standard we get from a lot of people in the media. I could put her on any TV program you could imagine. She’s being treated as if she’s out there trying to garner all this publicity; we turn stuff down every day. We turn down dozens of things every day. We get invitations all the time for her to speak at various events, either of a partisan or conservative nature or whatever; she’s not doing that. She’s here. She put out a budget. She’s got a State of the State address she’s going to deliver in less than two weeks. It’s not that she’s commenting, it’s that it seems like the national media will just gobble up anything Palin.”

“I think Governor Palin has some legitimate grievances when it comes to her press coverage,” Politico’s Mahtesian says. “There’s no question in my mind that she’s received rougher treatment from the media than most other politicians. But the governor’s attempts to point that out will continue to fall flat as long as her office fails to find more effective ways to communicate with and reach out to the press.”

Tuesday evening, on CNN, political rivals discussing the situation between Palin and the media found common ground. Republican pundit Bill Bennett said, “She should step out of the limelight and the media should leave her alone.” Democratic strategist James Carville agreed.

The governor’s office says she doesn’t want the constant exposure, that the recent blitz due to Ziegler’s film excerpts was unexpected. The legislative session starts next week, and there’s serious work to be done—the work that Alaskans elected her to do.

If nothing else, maybe the session—with its hard and sometimes-boring work on policy, rather than politics—will finally cool the national appetite for all things Palin and make way for a truce. We’ll find out soon.

Afterword: the day that this story came out in print, January 15, it was revealed by Politico.com that on Monday, January 19, Sarah Palin will be the first guest on Glenn Beck’s new television program on Fox News.

Brendan Joel Kelley
Anchorage Press

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