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.


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.


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.


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.”



In their learned discussion  this week, political philosopher Glenn Beck and stateswoman Sarah Palin evoked the spirits of the “founding fathers” — a term, by the way, that was coined by an earlier genius, Warren G. Harding. After his own apotheosis of George Washington, Beck inquired of Gov. Palin, “Who is your favorite founder?” Apparently not wanting to offend the disciples of any one of our forbears, Gov. Palin demurred: “Ummm … you know … well, all of them.” Beck, clearly trying to uphold his reputation as a hard-hitting and objective interviewer, expressed his reservation by dismissing the governor’s attempt at delicacy as “bull crap” and demanded to know who was her favorite. The two great minds, as  it turned out, were superimposed much like a prophetic convergence of heavenly bodies. Gov. Palin’s choice was George Washington. She made her reason clear: She empathized with Washington’s indifference to public office, except as a temporary duty, and his disdain for notoriety in general. So it was a natural choice for the former city council member, mayor, and governor, and unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor and vice-president — and recently engaged Fox News commentator. Neither Beck nor Palin brought up slave-holding or land speculation, but it was only a one-hour program.


Given the spiritual underpinnings of the two thinkers, their discourse naturally turned to religion. They agreed that religious faith was an important motivation for  the “founding fathers,” although Glenn Beck darkly noted, “except Thomas Paine — we think he might have been an athiest.” As far as the others were concerned, Gov. Palin twice tried to assure Beck — who didn’t seem to be listening — that “we have the documents.”

Paine might have run afoul of Glenn Beck and Gov. Palin anyway inasmuch as he eventually described Washington with words like “hypocrite,” “apostate,” and “imposter.” However, unless the “we” who share Glenn Beck’s suspicions know something that historians do not know, Paine was not an athiest but a deist — deism being all the rage at the time, including among many of the “founders.”

As for the “documents” the governor referred as evidence that the republic somehow was founded on religious principles, perhaps she will be specific when she settles into her role as a commentator or when she publishes her next book. Presumably she is not referring to the Declaration of Independence, which is not part of the organic law of the land, nor such things as Thanksgiving proclamations. Nor can she mean the treaty with Tripoli, ratified by the Senate and signed by the deist founding father and president, John Adams — a treaty that explicitly rejects the idea that the government of the United States was founded on Christian principles. If Gov. Palin can find religion — except a prohibition against establishing it — in the federal Constitution, which is the law of the land, she has an obligation to expose it for the rest of us.

“Don’t tread on me”

November 18, 2009


Sarah Palin was non-committal when Barbara Walters asked, in the interview being broadcast this week, whether Palin wanted to run for the presidency. That, Palin said, is not on her radar at present, but she she cautioned that she could not predict what might happen between now and 2012. Presumably, that was a reference to that year’s national election and not to the revolution of the Mayan calendar.

If Palin does decide to seek office again, she should ask to be mentored by Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who has served two terms as president of Latvia. Perhaps on a global scale that is analogous to having been governor of Alaska from the perspective of Americans. But don’t be fooled by the relative obscurity of Freiberga’s venue. She is a force to be reckoned with and a role model for women who believe that half the population should hold half the power, if not more.


Vike-Freiberga has made it clear that she is a candidate for the presidency of the European Union, and she is fuming — as she should be — over public suggestions that there are no qualified women to fill the post that has been dominated by men. “Those people who say that should wash their mouths out with soap,” Mrs Vike-Freiberga told The London Times. “As far as I am concerned they are voicing the deepest and most objectionable prejudice against women. They are saying that we do not have qualified women around,and I resent that. It is a lie and we should all protest against that because it implies that somehow talent was distributed only to those with one kind of chromosome.”

Check the Times story for a sketch of Vike-Freiberga’s personal and academic resume. Not qualified, indeed! The Times also reports on her challenge to EU leadership to strip away the secrecy from the process by which the EU president is chosen — a practice she compares to the methods of the Soviet Union.

She’s my new hero.



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.

Remain calm

July 10, 2009



Personal attacks may be driving Sarah Palin from public office, but not so the prime minister of Italy. Silvio Berlusconi told G8 leaders gathered in L’Aquila, “You all know very well they are making personal attacks on me, but don’t worry, I will be leading my country for another four years.”

Berlusconi’s perceived dalliances and affairs and his tumultuous marriage have made for lively reading, and they have also made for no end of righteous explanations from the prime minister. He and Gov. Palin have this in common: Neither has done anything wrong.

It’s unusual, to say the least, for the head of a government to address an internal matter like Berlusconi’s circus of a life before  a gathering of his peers, but this is no ordinary man. Perhaps the most interesting thing about his statement was the tone of reassurance: “Don’t worry,” he told his colleagues, “ma state tranquilli” — the expression literally means “but remain calm.” Here was Berlusconi — within himself seriously concerned about the battering his reputation has taken in capitals around the world — expressing his determination to remain in office in terms that make him sound not vulnerable, but indispensible.

On balance, even coming from Berlusconi, it was more heroic than anything we’ve seen in Wasilla.




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. 




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




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.