SARAH PALIN

I just read the Vanity Fair stories about Sarah Palin. I didn’t read them for the content, because that has been pretty much laid out in media reports; I was interested as a journalist in the issue of unnamed sources.

Some of what Michael Gross reports in those stories is based on documentation, most notably the accounts of the large amounts of money spent on clothing for Gov. Palin and her family during the 2008 election campaign. Much of this has been reported before — even during the campaign — and Gross reinforces the idea that the spending was excessive. Some might argue that political candidates should present themselves as they normally appear, but that’s not the kind of culture we live in. I imagine the campaigns also spent money on clothing for the McCains and the Obamas and the Bidens, but Gross doesn’t present that kind of information or any other point of comparison.

TODD PALIN

What troubles me, however, is that Gross’s story makes the case that Gov. Palin has become a ruthless, nasty, self-absorbed person; that she has a violent temper which she has directed at, among other people, her husband, Todd; and that the images of her as a hunter and as a pious person have been fabricated. In order to support his  portrait of Palin as a kind of angel of darkness, Gross explains that he could not name most of the primary sources for his stories because they were afraid of reprisals. The reader, of course, has no idea what might motivate the unnamed staff member or bartender to pillory Gov. Palin.

SARAH PALIN

And, in fact, in Gross’s long article there is only one named source to support the image of Gov. Palin the writer creates. That source is Colleen Cottle, who was a member of the City Council when Sarah Palin was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. Cottle, who told Gross she and her husband “will pay a price” for speaking openly about Gov. Palin, said it was difficult to work with a mayor who had a short attention span, didn’t understand mathematics or accounting well enough to discuss city budgets,  and spent only four hours a day at the job — mild comments compared to some of the other characterizations in Gross’s article.

Sarah Palin campaigining for the vice presidency in 2008.

I am not an apologist for Sarah Palin, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the stories Gross reports are true. In any case, Gov. Palin has made herself a public figure, and she has to take her lumps. What concerns me is that the use of unnamed sources — and only one named source — to paint a very ugly picture of this woman is out of whack, if we are supposed to accept Gross’s story as journalism. When I worked for the Gannett Co., the policy was that unnamed sources could be used only when necessary, and the necessity had to do with the importance of the information. Naturally, the policy also required that the source have first-hand knowledge of the subject matter, and that the top editor of the publication knew the identity of the source. The policy also required that the source be identified in the story as fully as possible and that the reason for withholding the name of the source was explained to readers. We might have applied that policy, for example, to report the kind of weapon used in a homicide when the source of the information was a police chief who did not want to run afoul of an overbearing county prosecutor.

ALLEN NEUHARTH

Gross points out, of course, that neither Gov. Palin nor anyone on her behalf would agree to be interviewed for his story, and Gov. Palin has since clubbed the article as “yellow journalism,” using the bat that Gross put in her hands — unattributed claims. There is a great deal written about this subject, including the fact that the unnamed source has become the sine qua non of reporting in Washington. “Nobody has a name in Washington,” leading journalist Joann Byrd told the American Journalism Review in 1994.

Research has repeatedly shown, however, that consumers of news are skeptical of unnamed sources and are likely to assume that an unnamed source does not exist. Allen Neuharth, founder of USA Today and former chairman of the Freedom Forum free-press foundation had this to say on the topic in the same article in the American Journalism Review:

“There’s not a place for anonymous sources. I think there are a few major historical developments that happened in journalism – the Pentagon Papers, maybe Watergate – where anonymous sources had a more positive influence than a negative impact. But on balance, the negative impact is so great that we can’t overcome the lack of trust until or unless we ban them.”

Advertisements
Rep. JOE WILSON

Rep. JOE WILSON

Well, the least that can be said of Joe Wilson is that he didn’t know what he would be unleashing when he pulled the cork out of that bottle — the bottle being his indiscreet mouth.

Not only has he been accused of racism for his heckling of President Obama from the floor of the House of Representatives, but he has been branded as a symbol of a latent racism far bigger than he. As though Congress weren’t already in a state of self-paralyzing partisanship, it was divided even more deeply by the vote to reprimand Wilson. Meanwhile the latter-day No-Nothings have adopted him as their hero. Can a Wilson-Palen ticket be far behind?

The mind races back to the first quarter of the 19th century — well, mine does, at least.

WILLIAM H. CRAWFORD

WILLIAM H. CRAWFORD

William H. Crawford of Georgia, the secretary of the treasury, is at the White House demanding to know what President James Monroe intends to do about a list of political appointments Crawford has recommended.

“That,” Monroe — perhaps injudiciously — tells Crawford, “is none of your damned business.” To which provocation Crawford responds by lunging at Monroe with a cane, calling him “you infernal scoundrel.” Monroe goes to the fireplace and grabs a poker to defend himself, and the secretary of the treasury is forcibly removed from the executive mansion, apologizing on the way out.

“You lie!” “You infernal scoundrel.”

At least Crawford had some style.

ANDREW JOHNSON

ANDREW JOHNSON

When Andrew Johnson was governor of Tennessee in the middle of the 19th century, he was warned that if he kept a certain speaking engagement, he would be shot. Those were times of — how you say — partisan excitement. Johnson kept the date, produced a pistol and announced that he understood assassination was part of the program and that good order dictated that it be first on the agenda. He waited. Nothing happened. He went ahead with his speech. Whatever his shortcomings, Johnson apparently wasn’t afraid of assassins.

Now Sarah Palin is governor of Alaska and she has agreed to speak — after she leaves office — before the Simi Valley Republican Women’s Club at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California. Considering the timing and the audience and the venue, this might have been the first volley in Palin’s new career — whatever that may be. But it won’t do for that purpose because — of all things — the press won’t be admitted. No one is saying who made that decision. Maybe it was the club. Of course, why wouldn’t a political club celebrating an anniversary of its charter with an event at one of the presidential libraries want to exclude news coverage? The arrangements were made too far in advance for this to have anything to do with the latest ethics issue swirling around the governor — the report by a special investigator that Palin used her position to improperly receive gifts from a political fund, ostensibly to help pay her legal bills from previous ethics complaints. So it must just be that the Republican Women of Simi Valley are shy, not that the governor doesn’t want to face the assassins …. uhhh, the press.

The investigator, by the way, made a sensible recommendation, which was that public officials who are the subjects of ethics complaints that eventually are dismissed should not have to pay for their own defense. That’s the position that Palin is in, and it isn’t just.

Gov. SARAH PALIN

Gov. SARAH PALIN

The decision by Gov. Sarah Palin to resign her office is another indication of the irresponsibility of the Republican Party in nominating her for the vice presidency last year.

Both her resignation itself and the manner in which she has presented it are evidence of her immaturity and lack of intellectual depth. The rationale she presented was that she had decided not to run for re-election next year and that “to embrace the conventional ‘Lame Duck’ status in this particular climate would just be another dose of ‘politics as usual,’ something I campaigned against and will always oppose.” This statement is either disingenuous or it is typical of the governor’s inability to grasp even common ideas. The term “lame duck” refers either to a public official or public body that holds office between an election and the end of its term. The only “lame duck” status Gov. Palin has is the one she has imposed on herself – the period between her announcement and her departure from office on July 26. She would not have had “lame duck” status for a year and a half if she had completed her term. She would have been a lame duck only between the election and the inauguration of her successor .

Explanations by the governor herself and by her spokesperson have been laced with references to the battering Palin has taken in the media and from political commentators since she was nominated for the vice presidency. Spokeswoman Meghan Stapleton, for instance, told Fox News: “This is a move that says, ‘Enough, I’m not going to keep hitting my head against this wall. I’m not playing politics as usual. You go play that game. I’ll go play it another way and at another court,’ so she can get something done and make a difference with the issues and values that are important to her.”

While the governor has been licking her wounds, she has given no reason beyond her resentment and hurt feelings why she should abandoned the trust the voters of Alaska placed in her only 19 months ago. What makes her think she doesn’t owe the state a better explanation? Is she resigning out of pique? Is she resigning so she can launch a campaign for the presidency? Can she even articulate why she is resigning?

The Republican Party had no business nominating this woman for the vice presidency. It was a cynical and desperate political act. By nominating her, the party not only doomed the candidacy of Sen. John McCain, but created in Sarah Palin’s head a wildly distorted idea of her capabilities. It’s a lot to answer for.

 

GOV. SARAH PALIN

GOV. SARAH PALIN

I’m the guy who told a couple of generations of reporters and journalism students that a good writer can stop any person on the street and write an interesting story about him. So far be it from me to suggest that there isn’t a good story to be told about Gov. Sarah Palin, R-Alaska. As it turns out, Gov. Palin herself – a former journalism student – is going to take on the job herself after signing a book deal with HarperCollins and Zondervan. She anticipates that the  project will take about a year which, if she can stick to that schedule, would get it into Borders in time for the 2010 gubernatorial election. I’ve seen some cynical references to that in what the governor refers to as “the anonymous blogosphere,” but why begrudge her that advantage – or the kind of money she can command while people are still interested in her? If Richard Nixon could appear on “Laugh-In,” why shouldn’t Gov. Palin write a memoir? It could be time consuming, especially because the governor says that, despite the collaborator assigned to the  book, she wants to write most of it herself. 

 

ULYSSES S. GRANT

ULYSSES S. GRANT

News of this enterprise naturally evokes questions about the content. The governor is a relatively young woman who has had a relatively short – and dare we say largely inocuous – public career. Ulysses S. Grant put off his memoirs until he had been the general-in-chief of the victorious Union Army and twice president of these United States. And Dwight Eisenhower saved his written reflections until he had been supreme allied commander in Europe, general of the Army, and twice president. What will the governor write to hold a reader’s attention for two or three hundred pages? She did discuss that in a general way with a newspaper reporter as follows: “I just really look forward to being able to relate to people through this book, those who are anxious to hear stories about people who are facing similar challenges perhaps. That’s balancing work and parenting — in my case work does mean running a state, and family involves a large and fun and colorful ordinary family that really has been thrust into maybe some extraordinary circumstances.”  See?

I expect Harper has editors to deal with misplaced “perhapses” and “maybes,” but I hope the book clubs are heavy with folks “anxious to hear stories about people who are facing similar challenges.” Perhaps.

“Better left unsaid.”

March 22, 2009

 

GOV. SARAH PALIN

GOV. SARAH PALIN

The fact that Gov. Sarah Palin found it necessary to comment on President Obama’s careless remark about the Special Olympics shows how far she has to go to be considered a serious candidate for national office. Consider, by contrast, President Bush’s response in Calgary last week when he was asked about Obama’s administration. What Obama needs from me, Bush said, is my silence. I have done work on behalf of handicapped people for several decades, and I blanched when I heard Obama make that comment to Jay Leno. It was a clumsy thing to say – more so for a person who usually chooses his words so carefully – and one always wonders in such cases if the unguarded remark is indicative of the speaker’s point of view. But did that remark reveal that Obama has disregard or even disdain for handicapped people – this man who last month dispatched the vice president to the Special Olympics and who has appointed the first special presidential assistant on disability policy? 

The Obama tongue has slipped before. During the campaign, he spoke about putting lipstick on a pig, and partisans of the governor accused him of referring to her. It was clear in the context that he was not speaking of Gov. Palin, but he should have known better than to use that expression during a contest in which there was the rare circumstance of a female candidate for national office. He set himself up.

On the other hand, when Obama, during the debates, had an opportunity to have at Gov. Palin, he wisely took a pass. That’s what she should have done in this case. She already had the stink of opportunism about her, and this further exposes her lack of elegance, of tact, of class. Whatever one thinks of Obama’s politics and policies, he has set the bar high with respect to demeanor. Palin, it seems, can’t reach that bar, even on tiptoes.