Saradise Lost: How Alaska bloggers dethroned Sarah Palin

I'm not suggesting that homegrown bloggers alone were responsible for Palin's “no más” moment, but there's no question that the online activists played a key role.

It turns out that blogger Phil Munger hears all his big, breaking Sarah Palin news in the kitchen of his house, which overlooks Neklason Lake and sits just 10 miles from the center of Wasilla, the Southcentral Alaska town where Palin once served as mayor.

On July 3, Munger, a music professor and former '60s anti-war activist who started his blog Alaska Progressive in November 2007, was in his kitchen and got gobsmacked by the announcement that Palin was handing over the reins of the state to her No. 2, and doing it for the good of Alaskans.

Munger's immediate reaction to the stunning news? He emailed me a succinct response: “WTF??!!!”

For Munger, it was déjà vu all over again. Back on August 29, 2008, Munger, again in his kitchen, heard the jaw-dropping news that Palin had been picked as John McCain's running mate. “She's just totally unqualified,” was the blogger's first thought.

Stunned, confused, and more than a bit concerned about an America with Palin in the No. 2 position, Munger immediately blogged it. He wanted to warn people about the newcomer to the national stage, the one he first met in the early '90s, when she was a 26-year-old serving on the Wasilla Planning Commission; the one who once told him she believed Jesus Christ would be born again in her lifetime. And when Munger sat down to write his first impressions about Palin's meteoric rise, he opted for an Alaska slang term that described the idyllic frontier realm as depicted by Palin's most fervent Republican supporters: “Saradise.”

Munger's blog post was headlined “Saradise Lost,” and in the ensuing days, weeks, and months, he kept adding updates, or chapters, as the fall campaign unfolded, and then as Palin returned to govern Alaska. That was last August. Over the recent July Fourth holiday weekend, Munger completed Book Two of his “Saradise Lost” installment. In total, he'd posted more than 250 Palin chapters.

Now the governor was quitting. While she never said it out loud, it certainly wouldn't have been a shock if she'd directed a Nixonian parting phrase toward Alaska bloggers: “You're not going to have Palin to kick around anymore.”

I'm not suggesting that homegrown bloggers alone were responsible for Palin's “no más” moment, but there's no question that the online activists played a key role. That with their shit-kicking brand of frontier citizen journalism, they drove Palin to distraction and changed the way voters nationwide thought about the governor. So if conservative bloggers get credit for driving Dan Rather out of the anchor chair in 2004 following their Memogate campaign-season tale, then the band of scrappy liberal bloggers in Alaska ought to be allowed to bask in a bit of glory, because they made their own history when Palin announced her exit.

And the truth is, bloggers didn't back off after last November's election. Their dead-on pursuit of the facts continued right through Palin's awkward farewell bid. As Howard Kurtz noted on CNN's Reliable Sources on Sunday:

It took some liberal bloggers to poke some holes in some things that Sarah Palin said. For example, she had said that most of the ethics complaints against her in the state of Alaska were filed by Democrats. That's not true. She said millions of dollars were spent on legal fees defending her, and she felt badly about that. But actually, the figure was less, and these were mostly staff salaries paid to state lawyers who would have been paid anyway.

Indeed, read this utterly thorough dissection of Palin's tall tale about the cost of ethics complaints for a lesson in what Alaska bloggers have been doing to the governor for the past 10 months. Like a bartender at Wasilla's Mug-Shot Saloon, Palin keeps setting up the tall tales, and local bloggers keep knocking them down. Again and again and again. (Earlier this year, they helped torpedo Palin's pick for Alaska attorney general; the nominee was the first in state history not to be confirmed.)

Brandishing dogged reporting skills and wonderfully insightful, entertaining writing, Alaska bloggers turned the 49th state (and a very, very red one, at that) into a hotbed for plugged-in citizen journalism and showed the rest of the liberal blogosphere, as well as media elites, what's possible when passion and creativity are harnessed online.

Just ask Palin.

And the phenomenon can all be traced back to that morning in late August when word first broke about Palin's ascension to the national stage. That morning, liberal bloggers at sites like Alaska Progressive, Mudflats, Celtic Diva's Blue Oasis, Just a Girl From Homer, Kodiak Konfidential, Own The Sidewalk, What Do I Know?, Alaska Real,, and Immoral Minority began tapping away at their keyboards, wearing the same stunned expression that Munger had stuck to his face. They didn't realize it right then, but within just a matter of days, Alaska bloggers would emerge as one of the most important local newsgathering sources of the entire election season. (Their hit counts also zoomed into the stratosphere.) And collectively, they wrote a new chapter in campaign journalism.

I was so struck by their contributions last year that I profiled them in my recent book, Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press. Their groundbreaking work since the election simply confirms their place in Internet history.

In the right place (i.e. far, far away from the Beltway) at the right time and boasting unmatched knowledge about Palin, the bloggers served an invaluable function last year. While major media organizations scrambled to even get reporters to Alaska to start their background reporting on the governor, the bloggers were teeing up all kinds of meaty morsels hour after hour on that weekend the Palin news broke. (If McCain had tapped former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to be his VP, I just don't think Boston-based bloggers, for instance, would have had the kind of impact on the VP story that Alaska bloggers did.)

Media companies had few bureaus and even fewer political contacts on the ground in Alaska. And the state's major newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News, just couldn't cover the sprawling Palin story with the kind of obsessive detail that bloggers could; the daily couldn't satisfy the tidal wave of Lower 48 interest in Palin, so bloggers jumped in and started pumping out information and impressions about their governor.

The Bridge to Nowhere, Troopergate (which bloggers Andrew Halcro and Linda Kellen Biegel helped break during the summer of 2008), Wasilla's Palin-era policy on making rape victims and their insurance companies pay for test kits, Palin's unorthodox religious beliefs, her previous love affair with federal earmarks, her anti-science beliefs, and her dubious claim of being “commander in chief” of the Alaska National Guard. It was like a smorgasbord. And quite simply, for long stretches of time, the Alaska bloggers owned the Palin story, as they did their best to paint an accurate picture of the new VP candidate for the rest of the world, a picture that didn't always mesh with the mavericky picture presented by the press.

What happened during the campaign was that organically, Alaska bloggers formed their own “all-Palin, all-the-time” reporting collective -- their own de facto reporting pool -- that often rivaled traditional outlets in terms of output, and one that regularly surpassed the mainstream media for local knowledge and insight.

Did they sometimes play a bruising brand of hardball? You betcha. (What else would you expect in the Last Frontier?) But were they mostly fair and accurate in their Palin coverage? From what I've seen, absolutely. Remember, last year, it was Alaska bloggers who tried to put the brakes on the far-fetched blogosphere campaign, launched outside of Alaska, that raised doubts about whether Palin was really the mother of her new son, Trig, or if Palin's daughter was actually the mother.

Palin and the Alaska bloggers have become, in a way, inseparable. You can't really talk about the roller-coaster ride that Palin's been on over the past 10 months without talking about the local bloggers who have been responsible for so many of the political dips she's suffered since August 29.

A completely unique (and contentious) relationship formed between the bloggers and Palin, and looking at the liaison from afar, I'm not sure which side was more obsessed with the other. Certainly the bloggers, collectively, have shone a homegrown, 24/7 spotlight on Palin that I doubt any other local politician has ever been subjected to. With their relentless pursuit of the facts and their rooting out of whatever Palin prevarications stood in the way of the truth, Alaskan bloggers, as well as their energized army of readers, have been relentless in fact-checking the governor, calling out her abuses of power, and holding her to the standard of transparency that she herself promised as a statewide candidate in 2006.

So, yes, Alaska bloggers have been obsessed with Palin. (They've become Palin-tologists?) What's been so unusual is that that fascination has been reflected right back at them by Palin, who seems utterly fixated on the bloggers and driven to distraction by her inability to control them. Not yet sporting the kind of alligator-thick skin that's pretty much required to run for national office, Palin has shown a real propensity to latch onto the online critiques of her and lash out at the bloggers.

As Time noted last week, “A more experienced, more familiar politician would have been ready for the ramping, but Palin seemed consumed by it. Instead of ignoring hostile bloggers, she combed the Web for their latest postings.” And Wonkette recently captured the obsession with the snarky headline “Sarah Palin Will Soon Condemn, Bomb Entire Internet.”

It was fitting, then, that the day after making her resignation announcement, Palin had her attorney issue a strange, over-the-top, four-page letter threatening legal action against any news organizations that picked up on the Palin resignation speculation that had been aired by influential Alaska blogger Shannyn Moore.

Appearing on MSNBC in the wake of Palin's stunning announcement, as observers tried to make some sense of it, Moore, searching for a possible explanation, pointed out that there had been a “scandal rumor” floating around Alaska for months about a possible corruption investigation centered on Palin. Moore clearly did not validate the claim of the rumor. She simply pointed out that it existed. Palin's legal eagle, though, then claimed Moore had stated the corruption charge as “fact.”

By singling her out for public denunciation, all Palin did was turn the Alaska blogger into a media celebrity and guarantee that she'd be given a larger media platform to discuss the rumor. As the wildly popular Anchorage-based site Mudflats noted with glee:

Shannyn Moore, the aforementioned blogger has now, courtesy of the Palin numbskullery, appeared on The Thom Hartmann Show, The Ed Schultz Show, The Ron Reagan Show, Alan Colmes, Countdown with Keith Olbermann. She's also been written up on the Huffington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Politico, Crooks and Liars, Brad Blog, Think Progress, Daily Kos, and dozens of others. The Associated Press has picked up the story, and so has KTUU and the Anchorage Daily News. Way to squash that rumor. [emphasis in original]

In other words, Alaska bloggers have been blessed with a perfect foil: a politician who overreacts to criticism and who often lashes out in hopes of exacting personal revenge, a politician who can't walk away from a fight, but who often doesn't have the facts on her side when she enters the online fray.

Saradise lost, indeed.