Palin, the press, and her pregnancy

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Sarah Palin emerged as a media critic last week when she sat down with a conservative filmmaker to critique the press coverage she received during the fall campaign. As somebody who withstood the unique scrutiny that general elections generate, Palin certainly deserves to air her complaints. And if they're legitimate ones, the press ought to give them a serious hearing. But Palin needs to be more accurate in her appraisals, because regarding one key media controversy from the campaign, she did more media revising last week than media critiquing.

Sarah Palin emerged as a media critic last week when she sat down with a conservative filmmaker to critique the press coverage she received during the fall campaign. As somebody who withstood the unique scrutiny that general elections generate, Palin certainly deserves to air her complaints. And if they're legitimate ones, the press ought to give them a serious hearing. But Palin needs to be more accurate in her appraisals, because regarding one key media controversy from the campaign, she did more media revising last week than media critiquing.

In the interview segment posted at YouTube, Palin was quite critical of the nasty conspiracy theory that was floated online right after she was tapped as Sen. John McCain's running mate. The rumor claimed that Palin was not really the mother of her newborn son Trig, but that her high school daughter, Bristol, was actually the mother and that Sarah Palin had "faked" the pregnancy to cover for Bristol. Palin claims the media picked up the rumor from liberal bloggers and then ran with it.

That Palin's still steaming about the episode is not surprising. Lots of people both online and off, and from the right and the left, considered the fake pregnancy story to be one of the low points in the campaign. Unfortunately, in her role as press critic, Palin misremembers the media's role. Or she's consciously trying to rewrite history.

Because the simple fact is the mainstream media did not spread the pregnancy story. Nor, contrary to Palin's accusation, were liberal bloggers responsible for it. Most A-list bloggers actively avoided the story, and some online writers even publicly decried the rumor when it first surfaced. It was actually some over-eager diarists (i.e. blog readers who are free to write pretty much whatever they want online) who helped hatch and amplify the story. And it was one high-profile mainstream blogger, from outside the liberal netroots community, who stepped forward to promote it.

Still, Palin claims the mainstream media picked up on the faked pregnancy story from "anonymous bloggers" and then helped spread it:

When did we start accepting as hard news sources bloggers, anonymous bloggers especially? It's a sad state of affairs in the world of the media today, the mainstream media especially, if they're going to rely on anonymous bloggers for their hard news information.

She also asked why reporters "believe[d] the lie." And she demanded to know why, instead of accepting the pregnancy story, journalists didn't take the extra time to report the facts.

In truth, if you go back and look at the how the press treated the story in real time (as opposed to the mythmaking that conservatives have done since), the press behaved precisely how Palin says it should have -- and exactly unlike how Palin claims it did. Meaning, reporters did not immediately embrace, believe, or publicize the pregnancy rumor. Instead, they acted responsibly: They asked questions and searched for facts from the McCain campaign before even thinking about giving the rumor any publicity. They did not push the Trig conspiracy story.

Were McCain aides furious when they had to answer reporters' awkward and intrusive question about Trig over Labor Day weekend? No doubt. Then again, I'm sure press aides for the Clintons in the 1990s were angry when they had to field intrusive press questions that sprang from right-wing conspiracy theories about whether Bill or Hillary were drug runners or had ever killed anybody. That stuff happens behind the scenes.

But again, Palin falsely accused the press of a) failing to ask questions about the pregnancy rumor and b) disregarding the facts and helping to spreading it. Neither assertion is accurate.

It's obvious the press was well aware of the left-field gossip that burned up the Internet on the last weekend of August. "Campaign officials were deluged with questions from reputable news outlets" about the pregnancy, The Washington Post reported on September 2. And Fortune's Nina Easton later told a panel discussion audience, "I don't know a reporter who did not get that [rumor] emailed to them."

The question, though, is what did reporters do with the story? How did they treat the online rumor? Palin suggests journalists ran wild with it. That's false. As the Post noted in September, "Mainstream outlets have not given such rumors any credence." Indeed, after searching Nexis and Google, I cannot find a single traditional, American news outlet that reported on the pregnancy rumors within the 48 hours after it appeared online. Nothing in The New York Times, The Washington Post, or the Chicago Tribune. Nothing in Newsweek or Time. And Nothing on MSNBC or CBS. Nothing anywhere. The press simply did not touch the story.

Actually, that's not true. I found an item posted on the Anchorage Daily News' political blog, dated August 31, which addressed the white-hot Palin rumor. The newspaper's blog was clearly skeptical of the rumor ("We haven't seen anything resembling proof"), noted a similar plot had floated around Alaska months earlier, and got a quote from Palin's spokesman that denied the allegation.

In other words, the newspaper did exactly what Palin now says she wished the media had done last summer.

Contrary to Palin's telling, most media outlets only addressed that story after the McCain campaign called attention to it on September 1, when it revealed that Palin's unwed 17-year-old daughter, Bristol, was pregnant. The campaign insisted it had to go public with the news in order to deflect the "disturbing, nasty smears" being spread online. (Of course, the campaign was always going to have to acknowledge the pregnancy at some point -- with or without the online rumors -- since Bristol would be eight months pregnant by Election Day.)

Only after Republicans threw a spotlight onto the online conspiracy theory did the press make references to it. And once the McCain campaign claimed liberal bloggers had spread the rumor, the press dutifully repeated the claim [emphasis added]:

  • "[Bristol] is pregnant -- a revelation the Alaska governor made public yesterday to refute rumors spread by liberal bloggers that she'd faked her own pregnancy to cover up for her daughter's earlier one. (New York Post)
  • "The 17-year-old daughter of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is pregnant, Palin said on Monday in an announcement intended to knock down rumors by liberal bloggers that Palin faked her own pregnancy to cover up for her child. (Reuters)
  • The announcement came after a swirl of rumors by liberal bloggers that the governor's fifth child, who was born in April, was in fact her daughter's." (The New York Times)

So now we have the Beltway press and Palin claiming "liberal bloggers" were behind the fake pregnancy story. Indeed, bloggers today collectively, and routinely, get dumped on for disseminating the pregnancy story. But it's not true. There wasn't a single A-list liberal blogger who backed the story at the time. Despite being inundated with emails from readers asking about the pregnancy rumor and wondering why they weren't linking to it and hyping it, high-profile liberal bloggers -- the people who founded and ran the sites -- refused to go with the story.

"We didn't want to touch the Sarah Palin pregnancy story with a 10-foot pole and the overwhelming consensus [among bloggers] was to strongly discourage anyone that was running with the rumors," wrote Martin Longman at his blog, Booman Tribune, on September 1. "We stifled the story as much as we could without deleting people's diaries."

And here was the response John Aravosis at AmericaBlog wrote to a reader who emailed him over Labor Day weekend with a link to the firecracker rumor: "I've seen the story, but I'd like to see more facts before even considering writing about it. I just don't like publishing this kind of thing without firm evidence that something is awry."

What did occur was that some readers and diarists on the blogs inflamed the fake pregnancy story -- but not the bloggers themselves. I realize that may be a minor distinction for the press and Palin to make, but if they're going to take the blogosphere seriously -- and if they're going to assign blame -- they ought to distinguish between the two entities. (It would be like blaming talk-show hosts for a conspiracy theory that listeners kept bringing up on the air, even though hosts refused to discuss it.)

I also realize that over the years the liberal blogosphere has benefited enormously from the creative, bottom-up input from activist readers (or "the people formerly known as the audience," as journalism professor Jay Rosen once put it). And that means the community also has to share the collective blame when the readers go astray. But the fact remains, "liberal bloggers" did not spread the Palin pregnancy story.

For the record, here's how that rumor unfolded online.

Headlined, "Palin's faked 'pregnancy'? Covering for teen daughter?," the Daily Kos post, written by reader and diarist "inky99," was posted on the evening Palin was introduced as the GOP VP pick, August 29. The item claimed that "Palin's last child, a baby with Down's syndrome, may not be hers."

Among other bits of information included in the post, inky99 erroneously reported that syndicated columnist Dave Sirota had appeared on Thom Hartmann's liberal radio talk show on August 29 and discussed the faked pregnancy story. Not true: The conversation Hartmann engaged in on the radio that day did not revolve around Trig's birth. It was about whether or not Bristol, at the time of Palin's VP announcement in August, was pregnant. That rumor had been widely discussed in Alaska during the previous weeks and months -- a rumor that was confirmed on September 1. (Also, Sirota did not take part in any pregnancy discussion on Hartmann's show that day; that on-air conversation was between Hartmann and Alaska talk-show host Kerry Kerrigan.)

Despite some early holes in the story, inky99 attached an interactive poll to the first Daily Kos pregnancy diary, asking readers to vote on the rumor's worthiness. Over time, more than 20,000 readers responded, and a robust 63 percent stressed that the fake pregnancy story was a legitimate one worth chasing. (Just 23 percent deemed it to be off limits.)

Inky99's post from Friday created some buzz online, but it was the follow-up post on August 30 at Daily Kos (since deleted) by the pseudonymous "ArcXIX" that created the firestorm as the entry raced up the site's recommended list, thanks to so many Daily Kos readers who gave the post an electronic thumbs-up. Much more detailed in terms of photographic and video evidence in support of the claim that Palin faked her pregnancy (i.e. Palin didn't look pregnant in the weeks leading up to Trig's birth), the new diary, "Sarah Palin Is NOT The Mother," was also much nastier:

Now, I've known liars in my life. Their single core problem is not with themselves, but those around them. If they're never called out on their twisting of truths and fabrications, they simply continue to make larger lies.

Sarah, I'm calling you a liar. And not even a good one. Trig Paxson Van Palin is not your son. He is your grandson. The sooner you come forward with this revelation to the public, the better.

The following evening, high-profile Atlantic blogger Andrew Sullivan embraced the fake pregnancy claim, suggesting the Daily Kos diaries posed intriguing questions that needed to be addressed by the McCain campaign. With a loyal following among Beltway journalists, Sullivan's post signaled to the press (incorrectly) that the fake pregnancy story represented a serious matter of inquiry among liberal bloggers. That same night, the Drudge Report tagged the story with the headline: "Lefty Bloggers Go After Palin's 16 year old [sic] Daughter."

A self-described conservative who voted for Bush in 2000, warned after 9-11 that "decadent left enclaves on the coasts may well mount a fifth column," and stood out as a loud cheerleader for the Iraq war in 2003, Sullivan was never considered to be part of the liberal blogosphere. But his political reversal, which soon included relentless attacks on the Bush administration, as well as his vocal cheerleading for Barack Obama's candidacy, had won Sullivan a legion of progressive fans online in 2008. And during the final weekend of August, Sullivan became the highest-profile Obama supporter online to link to the fake pregnancy story and suggest it required serious attention, that it was a legitimate line of inquiry for traditional reporters to pursue. (The post marked something of an obsession for Sullivan, who continued to push the Palin pregnancy story even after Election Day.)

Sullivan immediately felt pushback from the blogosphere. "I strongly believe Sullivan should have laid off this. I could have linked to it yesterday, but didn't, since at that point it was only fodder for a pseudonymous diarist at the Daily Kos," wrote Dan Kennedy at his site, Media Nation, just hours after Sullivan posted. "This is the sort of hurtful story that reputable news organizations should check out thoroughly before injecting into the debate. I mean, come on. Does anyone think Josh Marshall hasn't been following this? Or dozens of other liberal political blogs and Web sites, including Media Nation? None of us went there, and Sullivan shouldn't have, either. This is the definition of a story that shouldn't be hashed out publicly."

Kennedy wasn't alone in airing his reservations. That Sunday at The Huffington Post, blogger Lee Stranahan posted an essay that ridiculed the story: "It's the wackiest rumor about Sarah Palin or any other politician so far this election. It's making its way all through the internet. And of course it came from DailyKos."

That same day, Huffington Post writer Bart Motes also begged everyone to back off: "Guys, it's a loser. Can we not do this?"

Up in Alaska, liberal blogger Linda Kellen Biegel urged readers to ignore the Trig story: "I don't believe that the 'Trig is her grandson' story is true and I think it could end up decimating the credibility of those folks who continue to push it."

And right before midnight on August 31, the Daily Kos diarist known as "The Red Pen" posted a photo taken on the final day of Alaska's legislative session, on April 13, 2008, and just days before Trig's premature birth, in which a clearly pregnant-looking Palin was interviewed by a local television reporter. The Red Pen posted it at Daily Kos, announced the pregnancy baby story had officially been debunked, and chastised the community: "We can drop this crap now. ... [W]e look stupid pushing this rumor."

In retrospect, there's no denying that the rumor did get pushed on the liberal blogosphere. Sullivan was right when he wrote the buzz surrounding it was (temporarily) "deafening." And I suspect some A-list bloggers wish they had done more, in real time, to denounce the rumor when it sprang to life among progressive readers. But contrary to Palin's claim, it wasn't liberal bloggers themselves who pushed the fake pregnancy story. And it wasn't the mainstream media either.

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