ANCHORAGE, Alaska — For Alaska politics, 2006 was a rough time. A widespread corruption investigation dominated the scene and a natural gas pipeline contract was negotiated behind closed doors — and then rejected.
Against this backdrop, in walked Sarah Palin, who swept into the Governor’s Office on the pledge that government should, and would, be open and transparent.
She appeared to allow unprecedented access by the media, giving interviews almost anywhere and anytime, and the media loved every minute of it.
“I can remember our Juneau correspondent going down to Juneau for the first session where Governor Palin was in office and saying like a gigantic weight had been lifted off the building,” Channel 2 News Director Steve MacDonald said.
“When Sarah Palin campaigned on a program of openness in government, that was very appealing to me,” Gregg Erickson, founder of the Alaska Budget Report, said.
And Palin officials say they put openness and transparency to work in government.
“If you look to her greatest accomplishment, which was AGIA (the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act), you see no greater transparent or open process than that, which was removing oil and gas from behind closed doors and what ultimately we learned later was a somewhat corrupt process among many,” Palin spokesperson Meghan Stapleton said.
But some reporters covering the governor saw the transparency clouding over.
“The thing about Palin is she came on — think back, transparency and openness was the slogan of her campaign — and from the start she was anything but transparent and open,” Bob Tkacz, a fisheries reporter and publisher of Laws of the Seas, said.
Tkacz says he requested a transition report on fisheries from the Palin administration and it came with huge sections redacted.
“I saw the Fish and Game pre-censored report and post-censored on, and the stuff they blacked out — I don’t remember specifics, but it was ‘Why in the world would anybody want to?'” Tkacz said. “We’re not talking about AIDS, Social Security, there was no huge controversial issue that anybody ever did. Those reports are just meant to give the governor a heads up on fish or oil or whatever the issue is, and they hid those from the start.”
Erickson’s opinion of Palin evolved into believing her to be the most secretive governor in Alaska history, withholding several state documents and e-mails, and her practice of running government on her BlackBerry.
“Many of the e-mails that have been requested have not been made public, so you have to wonder what it is they’re trying to conceal,” Erickson said.
Stapleton says it was often a matter of not being permitted to release the details.
“So what I think you realize is that when you’re an outsider you say, ‘I’m going to go in there and change and become open and transparent,’ and when you get in there you hear back, ‘Well we can’t just hand that over because of X, Y, Z and so what we need to do is go through it,'” she said.
Palin’s popularity soared early in her term and her honeymoon with the media lasted a year and a half.
And then the first crack. In July of 2008 Palin fired Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan and the scandal known as Troopergate was born.
“It was the first time there had been any type of tension between Governor Palin and the Legislature, Governor Palin and the citizens of Alaska, and Governor Palin and the media,” MacDonald said.
Palin repeatedly denied that she or her administration tried to get her former brother in law, state Trooper Mike Wooten, fired, or that she fired Monegan because he wouldn’t or couldn’t remove Wooten.
But a legislative investigation revealed otherwise — that there were numerous contacts with Monegan from her staff and family.
Before Troopergate was resolved, perhaps the biggest political story in Alaska history began to unfold: Sarah Palin was chosen to be Sen. John McCain’s vice presidential running mate.
When Palin returned from the national campaign her popularity with Alaskans and her cozy relationship with the media would never be as strong as it once was.
“She knew when she came back that she came back to a different environment,” Stapleton said. “I think it was — and I hate to say it — but I think the Thanksgiving pictures coming out of Channel 2 with a turkey getting slaughtered over her shoulder was her first very real awareness that she was back to a different and much more disrespectful environment.”
The turkey incident had to do with Palin pardoning a turkey prior to Thanksgiving, and then giving an interview in front of the contraption where turkeys are slaughtered.
“It shouldn’t have been on the air because I felt it was out of context with what the story was all about,” MacDonald said. “The story was about pardoning turkeys and we had a turkey in the background being slaughtered.”
The interview only made Channel 2 News briefly. But it was only a matter of minutes before the video had gone national, soon to be parodied on “Saturday Night Live.”
“NBC says, ‘If she’s doing something, we want to know about it.’ Well our assignment desk did what it was asked to do, and when that video came in, it shipped that video via satellite to NBC,” MacDonald said.
Channel 2 would never get another sit-down interview with Palin. Many other media report a similar lack of access.
“I think there was a lack of trust, or what really people are out there to get rather than just policy and substantive materials, but catch a mistake, catch something quirky going on in the background and send it worldwide,” Stapleton said.
Palin now prefers her unfiltered communications through Twitter.
“I find it interesting that journalists now find out about what’s going on with the governor by monitoring her Twitter account, or whatever it is — I haven’t done that myself, perhaps I should” Erickson said.
For MacDonald, and perhaps for a press corps with expectations of openness and transparency in government, it’s a less-than-acceptable communication method.
“Twitter does not cut it,” MacDonald said. “No, I’m sorry.”
KTUU – Alaska’s News Source