At the outset of writing about the controversy surrounding Trig Palin’s birth, I said clearly that I could go either way on what to believe about this story.
On the one hand, I do see why some consider this to be possibly the greatest and most malevolent hoax in the history of American politics.
Yet, I remain intrigued by the odd, conflicting, indeed seemingly contrived anecdotes about what is now widely called The Wild Ride, Mrs. Palin’s allegedly reckless and lengthy return to Alaska while leaking amniotic fluid and suffering contractions unbeknownst to anyone around her in order to avoid delivering in Texas someone who might one day pick fish.
Those who believe in the hoax theory argue that pictures tell nearly the entire story. That all one has to do is look at a few photos to determine that Mrs. Palin was not pregnant.
Me? I’m a skeptic. Or maybe I’m just stupid. Although with two degrees from Columbia University
, for both of which I had to write a thesis (neither of which informs my thoughts or opinions today, even though I received A’s on them, Mrs. Palin), some might call me a notch above stupid.
Things need to be spelled out for me. I know there is someone out there who can explain away every single, niggling detail about this very strange birth story. But she doesn’t appear to want to do that.
So, I thought I’d start with the photos. And little did I know that Professor Brad Scharlott
, whose paper on the Spiral Of Silence
has got more people talking about this birth story than ever before, is actually a Photoshop expert.
Prof. Scharlott teaches both digital publishing and photojournalism at Northern Kentucky University
. And he said he’d be glad to talk me through a few of the more famous pictures. BS:
Thank you for that introduction, Laura, but let me qualify what you said. I have been teaching digital publishing since the late 1980s, and I’ve taught photojournalism for nearly a decade. So I’ve had to learn a lot about Photoshop and related programs in order to teach them to my students. I’m pretty good at “photoshopping” pictures, as that word is generally used – for example, I can put people’s heads on animals’ bodies, for laughs – but calling me an expert might be an overstatement. Still, I know enough to effectively teach digital photography and photo editing to college students.
Today I’d like to focus on a picture of Palin that appeared in the Anchorage Daily News
on March 14, 2008. That was nine days after Palin announced that she was seven month pregnant, and four and half weeks before she allegedly gave birth to Trig on April 18. Here it is, as it appeared in the newspaper:
While Palin looks fairly trim in this photo, it’s hard to tell just how flat her stomach is, because the darkness of her outfit obscures details.
Here’s where an experienced digital photographer can help. It’s well-known among the pros that dark areas in a photograph can be lightened to show details that otherwise will not be apparent. Any photo-editing program can be used to adjust the brightness level of a photo like this; that includes the photo-editing programs that are bundled for free with most new computers. People reading this who want to experiment can copy the above picture to their own computer, open the picture in iPhoto (if you are using a Mac, as I am), then click on the “Edit” icon, bring up the “Adjust” panel, and finally pull the “Shadows” slider to the right. (If you don’t see the “Adjust” panel, drag a corner of the photo to make it bigger.) And while you are at it, you might also bump up the brightness and contrast sliders a bit, also.
What will your adjusted photo look like? Probably like this:
Sarah’s flat stomach is now quite apparent. Notice that neither I, nor you, dear reader (if you followed along) moved a single pixel (a “pixel” is a dot in a digital picture). And I did not use Photoshop, so no one can accuse me, in any sense, of “photoshopping” the picture.
Let me address that term, by the way. When “photoshop” is used as a verb, generally it means to deceive by adding or subtracting or altering certain elements in a picture. But using Photoshop (or any other photo editing program) to simply lighten a photo is not deceptive. So be wary of what people really mean why they use the word “photoshopped.”
LN: Okay, Brad, I’m going to play devil’s advocate for a moment. Mrs. Palin looks to be leaning back in this photo, possibly because she’s chuckling about something funny the Lt. Governor said, or because of a text on her ubiquitous phone. But seriously, one could argue she is tilted back because of the weight and force of a baby belly. Couldn’t that explain her posture?
BS: I’m glad you asked that, Laura. The photographer who took this picture apparently used a zoom lens at a long setting, thus producing a photo distortion known as pin-cushioning. Look at woman to the right in the photo; you can see that her body is bowing slightly to the left with her head skewing a bit to the right corner. In the case of Palin, the bowing makes her appear to be leaning backwards.
To get a truer sense of what Palin would have looked like if you had viewed her in that scene with your own eyes, I am going to use the “Correct Camera Distortion” feature in Photoshop Elements (the cheaper, home version of Photoshop), and basically add a bit of “barreling” to counter the effect of the pincushion distortion:
The result gives a truer sense of how those three people would have looked if viewed with your own eyes that day. And while Palin seems to be standing straighter, the alteration did not affect the flatness of her stomach, which I think tells the story.
So what do you think, Laura? Do you believe Palin can be seven months pregnant in this photo? LN:
What a great question! I know I need to buckle down and not dither, and I know that this is about health care and job creation, there, also too. But I need to ask a man and I will get back to you (as someone might say).
Seriously, Brad, can’t someone say that any
change in a digital picture makes it less authentic, less true? BS
: Well, digital pictures are sometimes not admissible in court (for example, if the original is unavailable) because they are so easily manipulated. So you need to feel confident that the source of a digital picture is trustworthy. This particular picture comes from a major newspaper, so there is no reason to believe it was deceptively altered before it was posted online or published in the paper.
But the answer to your question is an emphatic “no,” altering a digital picture, say, by lightening it, does not
make it less “authentic” (whatever that might mean). That’s because all
digital photographs have already been processed in various ways before you see them. A cheap point-and-shoot camera makes numerous decisions for the user, such as light level and sharpness. A pro photographer using the “RAW” files captured by her camera must make those decisions herself before generating the pictures. (Back in the old days of film, any print of a picture had to likewise be processed through multiple steps, all of which introduced alterations from the “original,” which was generally a negative.)
Lightening a picture that already has been generated does not affect its “truthfulness” – it just presents a different aspect of the visual truth. The second picture above shows more detail than the first picture, and that is truthful, because in fact a person viewing the scene would have seen those details, since the human eye is much more sensitive than a digital camera. And the third picture is just as truthful as the first (or even more so) because it removes distortion caused by optics – in particular, by a zoom lens; it’s showing the scene as it would have looked to the human eye.
So the question for readers is this: Can you imagine any way Palin in this photo might be seven months pregnant? LN:
For my part, I covered up her head with a piece of paper and tried to look at the photo that way. And I must admit I see no pregnant stomach there. What do Mrs. Palin’s supporters
say about this photo? How do they
explain it? Because as I’ve said all along on this blog, I am wide open to having a conversation about this. BS
: Palin supporters generally try to ignore or belittle photographic evidence. Julia O’Malley, on April 14, in an Anchorage Daily News
article with the headline “Make. It. Stop.” wrote this about my research paper titled “Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor”: “I read Scharlott's piece
. It contains lots of innuendo and some widely-circulated Photoshopped pictures. What is missing from his investigation: facts.”
Notice her use of “Photoshopped” – the implication is the photos are deceptive. But in the case of the above photo, what deception can she possibly be referring to? The picture comes from her own newspaper
! If she wants, she can probably go straight to the photographer who took the picture and get a copy from his or her hard drive, just as it was downloaded from the photographer’s camera.
She wrote that my investigation lacks “facts.” (The paper has over 40 footnotes, so it’s brimming with verified, factual information.) But a photograph is also a “fact.” Can she look at the above picture and honestly say she thinks Palin might be seven months pregnant in it? In her article she wrote that Palin’s baby bump was obvious. What baby bump? LN:
Allow me to interrupt here and say that “obvious” is the last word I would use about this photo. I don’t know what the truth is, but there is no “obvious” pregnancy here. BS:
Exactly! In that same vein, I would like to invite Justin Elliot of Salon, who on April 22 wrote an article with the presumptuous headline “Trig Trutherism: The Definitive Debunker,” to exam the photographic evidence presented here. And after he examines it, I’d like to know if he still feels 100 percent sure Sarah Palin was in fact pregnant with Trig. If his answer is yes, then I’d like him to explain what he makes of this photograph.
I have a doctorate in mass communications from a top school in that field, the University of Wisconsin-Madison
, which means I’m a trained researcher. My research has been published in numerous peer-reviewed academic journals. I teach a senior-level college class on research methods. I’m an empiricist. I believe truth can be discovered and verified. And this picture that we have just examined objectively exists, and its truth value can be assessed. Here’s my bottom line from my examination of the photo: I am at least 95 percent confident that Sarah Palin is not seven months pregnant in that photo.
However, I am not 100 confident. I have no medical training. I do not work with pregnant women as a matter of course in my job. There are many people who can offer a much more authoritative reading of that photo than I can, including you, Laura, who have written so eloquently about your own high-risk pregnancy and the months your child lived in a NICU. So I am making a request, or rather several requests, of your readers:
1. Would those of you with medical training, especially if it involves working with pregnant women, let me know if you believe Sarah Palin might be seven months pregnant in the above photo? Please let me know your credentials and if I may quote you by name in a follow-up article. If you possess relevant photographic evidence, please send it.
2. Would those of you who have been pregnant at least five times
let me know if you, in the seventh month of your fifth pregnancy, looked approximately as slender as Palin does in the above photo. If you could verify your stage of pregnancy (for example, with the date of the photo plus the date that you gave birth), that would be great. Let me know if I may quote you by name and print your picture in a follow-up article. Likewise, if a close relative of yours (your wife, sister, etc.) looked that slender in the seventh month of her fifth pregnancy, let me know and send a picture.
3. If you are a professional photographer who has worked with pregnant women, please share any relevant observations or photographs you might have.
Feel free to post your comments below and I will certainly read them here, and respond, on Laura’s blog. Or if you wish for more privacy concerning your name, etc., you might want to post anonymously below or email Laura on her Contact page
. But send your comments plus personal information and/or pictures to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks in advance for your help. And Laura, it’s always fun talking with you about this story, journalist-to-journalist. LN
: Thank you, Brad. And I know that we are going to analyze two more critical photos here on my blog. And I can’t wait to see what you’ve got!
The first time I bathed my son. One week old. Neonatal Intensive care. His bulletin board in the background.
The French were right: The more things change, the more they stay the same. The “Spiral of Silence” that Professor Brad Scharlott
wrote about in this draft of an academic paper examining the media and the Sarah Palin birth rumors, has begun to spiral again. Only it’s downward, and it’s not pretty.
This time, the media is not so much debunking the rumors and laying them to rest. Instead it is turning in on itself with outlets out-arguing and out-shaming themselves. Bloggers pressing for answers. Reporters turning on bloggers. Just when Professor Scharlott and I think we can forge ahead with our conversation about the actions of major news outlets in 2008, reports came out last week that reporters quaking in their shoes once saw the then governor’s pregnant belly.
The formidableAndrew Sullivan
has weighed in on this new evidence. The incomparable Joe McGinniss
has as well. Both linked to my earlier interview with a specialist in the field of pediatrics (read the interview and figure out what he does. It’s not that hard. And they don’t get any more specialized than him.) I appreciate their guts and due diligence.
The immortal Immoral Minority’s Gryphen
says the story still stinks like foul fish and I have to agree. So, Brad, let’s talk shop: LN:
“Make it stop,” cried one reporter who now says she thought the governor was pregnant, in part because her friends in another city saw Mrs. Palin sweating on a treadmill. And that’s what I say now because I’ve just read about a reporter swearing he shooed people out of her office and then begged her not to get mad at him. Tell me I am dreaming. BS:
You’re not dreaming. Well, that reporter is Wesley Loy, the one I praised in our last edition as having “a lot of guts” for writing in March 2008 that Palin “simply does not look pregnant.” The scene you describe above comes from his recovered memory, three years after the fact, in which Palin seemingly convinced him she was with child. So if a hard-nosed, call-it-like-it-is guy like Loy suggests he thought she was really preggers, that seals the deal, right?
But wait. I wrote to Juneau newsman Gregg Erickson in September 2008 asking about the alleged hoax. He wrote back that in the summer of 2008, he and his wife had offices next to Loy’s, and that they “especially enjoyed Wesley's accounts of his pursuit the ‘Grandma Governor fakes birth’ story.”
Huh? If Palin, by lifting her shirt and revealing her fabric-covered belly, convinced Loy sometime that spring that there was no hoax, why was he investigating the hoax that summer? After Loy took a buyout from the Anchorage Daily News, I understand he became a freelancer and a blogger.
And Julia O’Malley, still with the Anchorage Daily News, wrote the “Make.It.Stop.” story, in which she virtually called me an idiot. Indeed, everything coming out of the Daily News these days seems to have a strong pro-Palin spin. These are tough times, especially for newspapers, and the Daily News gets over half a million dollars a year from the state of Alaska for advertising and other services. And while Palin is no longer the governor, many of her friends, whom she put in high-level state positions, are still around.
So could the Palin crowd be orchestrating something like reporters’ recovered memories and attack-dog articles? Does a polar bear eat moose in the woods? I simply don’t know. LN:
I am stuck on this fact that a reporter is saying he actually apologized to Mrs. Palin behind closed doors asking her to not get mad at him, before she lifted her shirt to prove she was pregnant. Scrape me off the floor because not only can I not fathom a reporter ever doing this, I’d be too ashamed to ever admit it. And no matter what the truth in this whole ordeal, she had him right there. He was mincemeat. Am I right? BS:
I’ve never been a woman, but a couple of folks posting at blog sites have said that the above scenario sounds like a woman wrote it. I don’t know the first thing about Loy – maybe he is good at getting in touch with his feminine side. But my reaction as a journalist is like yours – it seems like a very strange scene.
But I don’t want to seem snarky. Palin was the governor. And she was also beautiful and charismatic. To be honest, I have no idea how I would have reacted when I was a young reporter faced with a situation like that – but I might have been every bit as deferential. I’m guessing the scene happened exactly as Loy described it, and he was just overawed by her presence. Loy should just be thankful it wasn’t her gender that was being questioned. BS:
Your turn Laura. Can you picture a circumstance where you would write a “Make.It.Stop.” piece like O’Malley’s, effectively telling journalists that further investigation of a potential presidential candidate should be off-limits, because you absolutely know
the truth and have revealed it? LN:
Never. Yawn. Next question.
Seriously. Years ago, I worked with a very famous TV journalist in London and New York. Every time I went in to his office, he had his hands in his pants. Deep down. Fiddling with his shirt, I suppose, if I want to be charitable. Things like that happened often in the news business to young women. The sexism was rampant. So, had there been a weird story then that the man had no private parts, say, would I have said that no, that I was pretty sure there was something there to fiddle with? I’m sure I would have been discreet had that question been raised (he was a notorious philanderer.) Later, if someone asked, would I change my story about his fiddling with his pants and with other women? No. I experienced what I experienced. I wouldn’t adapt the story to fit the current agenda.
Same goes for my experience with Rush Limbaugh. We worked at the same all-news station in Sacramento. My experience was that he was a gentleman. He was always nice to me and had a good sense of humor. He’d often invite me on his show to debate issues. He called me a "flaming lib in the newsroom!" All these years later, with all that’s been said about him, would I change my story just because I disagree with his politics? No. I experienced Rush the way I did. It’s bogus to adapt to the current discussion rather than hold to our original truth. BS:
Joe McGinniss recently asked this in his blog: “Is it purely coincidence that so many are suddenly so intent on insisting that there are no legitimate questions to be asked?” What’s your answer? LN:
One must tread carefully, Obi Wan. Influence talks. Absolute influence talks absolutely. If reporters reported the story correctly, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Remember what you just said: Young reporters are more timid. They can be overwhelmed by the power brokers. I would probably have been as well, though to be honest, I overcame a lot of fear by compensating with fierce reporting. I could just get in their face
But I want to point out one more thing. Powerful people have media people. Those media people do not, I repeat, do NOT leave the room because a green reporter tells them to. (again, scrape me off the floor). I’ve had them place their tape recorders next to mine for the interview. I’ve had them try to redirect the conversation. I’ve even had them sit directly behind me and click, click, click away on their laptops to log the entire interview, almost as if in an attempt to unnerve me! I’ve been pressured, leaned on, harassed, schmoozed and offered bribes.
Brad, anything is possible. Anything.
In which I continue my dialogue with Dr. Bradford Scharlott,
tenured professor of communications and journalism at Northern Kentucky University. He wrote an academic paper entitled “Palin, the Press and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor: Did a Spiral of Silence Shut down the Story?”
It was released and circulated widely last week to the interest and consternation of Sarah Palin followers everywhere.
This appears to be the first time an academician has publicly examined the role of the U.S. press in covering, or not, the controversy that continues to surround Mrs. Palin and the baby, Trig Palin, born only months before her candidacy for vice president. And that is what has made me want to do a story on a story about a story.
(And at the bottom of this interview, I’ll post a photo of me holding my son in the Children’s Hospital NICU at 3 days old. With a few additional thoughts.) LN: Brad
, in your paper you quote a blogger who asserted Mrs. Palin was not the birth mother of Trig only days after her selection as John McCain’s running mate. That blogger
quoted the Anchorage newspaper as having reported on rumors to that effect almost six months earlier…rumors that were apparently “long simmering” about this. And yet another Alaskan reporter shut that down. And when you tried to contact a reporter about the confusion, he shut you
down. Who can make any sense of this?BS:
Gregg Erickson, a Juneau-based newsman, told the internet-poster ArcXIX that the press had pursued the hoax rumor and it proved “baseless” – that is different from saying the rumor was untrue. I believe he meant that Wesley Loy, an Anchorage Daily News reporter, had investigated the matter the previous summer and had failed to find affirmative proof of a hoax. There still is no affirmative proof of a hoax, just a ton of circumstantial evidence. That doesn’t mean there was no hoax – simply that, if there was one, it has worked well so far.
I tried to contact Wesley Loy, as you note, and he did not respond. (Recall that he is the reporter who wrote that Palin “simply does not look pregnant” when she announced the pregnancy – which took a lot of guts.) There is nothing unusual about the fact that he would not respond to my email. At the time I tried, he was probably getting contacted by lots of reporters and would have had no particular reason to want to talk to a professor in Kentucky who contacted him out of the blue. Remember that Palin was not only the governor, which gave her great power, she also had a reputation for being viciously vindictive. Even a reporter who felt certain a hoax had taken place had to be very careful of what he said. Loy is no longer with the newspaper; he was offered a buyout and took it.
Erickson and Loy were the only reporters I tried to contact back then. I wasn’t planning on doing anything with the information. I was just curious – professionally curious. LN:
But you also said that the McCain camp felt the need to respond to the rumor that Mrs. Palin did not give birth to Trig Palin, even though none of the mainstream press in the Lower 48 picked up the story. The campaign did this by saying Bristol Palin was pregnant. You then write: “It seemed strange and needless. A birth certificate would have settled the matter, as would a statement from the hospital or from the doctor who delivered the child.” Had that happened, you and I would likely not be discussing this today. So, what’s your theory on why that didn’t
Why didn’t Sarah Palin offer documentary proof she’s the mother? There would seem to be two possible answers, and they are not mutually exclusive: 1) she’s not the birth mother; and 2) she’s mentally unbalanced. BS
, you’re a mother. If someone doubted your birth story, would you simply ignore the matter, or would you prove your maternity with a birth certificate or other documentary evidence such as medical records? LN:
Once when I was working for CBS Radio in San Francisco, this nasty little woman who worked in the newsroom began spreading a rumor that I had been a biology major in college but never ended up graduating. She said I was a college drop out. Not only can I barely spell biology, let alone would I ever major in it, but I in fact have two degrees, both a bachelor’s and a master’s. I quashed that stupid rumor fast by chewing her out across the newsroom, as everyone ducked their heads! Had I needed to trot out my framed degrees, I would have. The rumor was so crazy, baseless, and insulting, I didn’t want it to fester.
Were I running for top office in the United States and a crazy rumor came up that I either endangered my child’s life, committed a fraud or lied through my teeth about the birth, I would quash that even faster by yelling even louder. For my child’s dignity, if not mine.
But, would I stand in front of a bank of cameras and wave my innocent child’s birth certificate around? I can see not doing that. Would I offer up all
my medical records? Likely, no. But what would
be appropriate is to have a pool camera and reporter view the certificate and talk to my doctor. Especially if this were causing my running mate any embarrassment! Or, I would have the campaign arrange for me to be on 60 Minutes, maybe even have my doctor laugh off the rumors with Leslie Stahl, and then show me in some beautifully quiet, peaceful, loving moments with my most precious offspring. I would leave no doubt, no doubt,
in anyone’s mind that I gave birth to this baby. To leave doubt is to foment mystery. To leave doubt would demean my intelligence and viability as a leader. The right person speaking in front of the right camera able to back up the facts to the right reporter, would be all that it takes.
Anyone would do the same thing. Unless of course, they wouldn’t. And the question remains: why not? BS:
As a former reporter yourself, can you identify with the reporters who covered the campaign and totally gave Palin a pass on the birth hoax rumor? If so, why? LN:
Hey, d’you hear the one about the third rate burglars who broke in to that apartment building in Washington one weekend? Well these two Metro reporters read about it on the police blotter, and the next thing you know, the president is resigning in disgrace. baduum tssshhh.
Sounds like the start to a joke, right? Whatever happened to gum shoe reporters who meet people in parking garages? Who ask tough questions and demand honest answers?
A few years ago I was working on a story for The New York Times. I had written proof that someone allegedly tried to extort money from a man I was reporting on. It was relevant to the story, but I double-checked with the editor overseeing the story. She said to put it in. When I tried to get the people involved to respond, they went insane. They threatened me. They threatened the Times. The woman herself stalked me and ended up in my driveway. Later, in a conversation with the editor who wanted me to pursue this line of questioning, even though it was becoming more and more tangential to the story, I explained how this woman was really harassing me. “If you’re afraid, hang up and dial 9-1-1.” That was this New York Times’ editor’s response to me about something that had happened a few days before: “Hang up and dial 9-1-1.”
People assume that the editors and managers in charge of stories for the MSM are necessarily wise, prudent or compassionate. Some of them really are. Most are great mentors and sharp professionals and I’m grateful for the guys I’ve worked for there. But some are also checked-out, like this woman. They make poor decisions, or bad calls. So too do reporters who get on a list-serve and decide a rumor is icky and that it’s their job to protect the candidate’s family from embarrassment. Imagine if Woodward and Bernstein felt Trisha and Julie’s feelings were more important than this incredible and incredulous story? How possible was it that Richard Nixon was somehow connected to a bunch of guys who bungled a burglary? Thankfully, two unknown Metro reporters thought it their jobs to find out.
The problem with the Palin baby story is this: if it’s a hoax, and I emphasis the word if,
it is the perfect one. Almost like the perfect crime. Because it involves medicine and there is no way anyone can prove it to be false. True? Yes. But false, no, because every one of these facts is protected by law. The facts behind this are under lock and key. The only good thing about all of this that I can see is that the child about whom this story has unfolded will never be able to cognitively comprehend the nuances of what is being surmised or said.
But whether a mother or a reporter: Why would I want that question to be left in the air? Why? That’s the question. Forget follow the money. The question is: who benefits from this controversy continuing?
This is me holding my son for the first time. He was 3 days old and living at a children’s hospital. I was finally released from the birth hospital nearby. He was born at 36 and 5/7 weeks and weighed 5 pounds 14 ounces. Here, his weight had dropped to 5.9 pounds. There was no fat on him anywhere! He was jaundiced in this photo, which can present as a ruddy, red look, rather than a sickly yellow look, though he never went under the bili lights for it. The condition resolved itself. He was breathing room air (I discussed how we prepared his lungs for birth in an earlier post.) He received his nourishment in the form of hyperal (hyper alimentation) through a deep line in his scalp. That is a suctioning tube taped to his nose. Again, just some perspective.
Prof. Brad Scharlott
Wow, it’s getting hot in here. Is anyone else warm or is it just me?
If you’re just joining me, and I doubt you are for no reason in particular, I am continuing what I have decided to call “a story about a story about a story.”
I’m speaking again with Bradford W. Scharlott, Ph.D
., a tenured professor a Northern Kentucky University. Several days ago, he released an academic paper entitled “Palin, the Press and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor: Did a Spiral of Silence Shut down the Story?”
For now, I’ve decided to pursue a format I’ve used on my Blog to interview authors, and as I did with Dr. Scharlott the other day. I'll ask Brad two questions, then he can ask me two. Like I said, I don’t have any editors managing this product. So if at some point that doesn’t work, we’ll change it. It’s all good here in the Bay Area. LN
, I want to begin going through your paper chronologically. You say, in the second sentence no less, that the premise of all of this media coverage/lack of media coverage is that Mrs. Palin “faked the birth of her fifth child, Trig, in 2008 to cover for her daughter, Bristol.” Does this story inevitably have to link to Bristol Palin? Where does that come from? Why go down that path? BS:
There at the start I was merely paraphrasing what the MediaMatters columnist had written – I did not foresee that people would take that as my theory of who Trig’s mother must be – but I understand why it seems that way. So I will revise that part and take Bristol’s name out. Indeed, I will make the point more than once in that paper that I am not pushing Bristol as Trig’s likely mother. I do spend a good deal of time in the paper on Bristol’s delivery of Tripp, but not because I think she must be Trig’s mother, rather because Palin’s people were jerking the press around concerning the exact place and/or date of delivery. That in itself suggests something odd was afoot – but I don’t know what.
Let me stress that this is not a finished paper ready to be published. I have submitted it for presentation at a conference, where professors generally get feedback on how to get a paper ready for publication in a journal. So, I’m now getting feedback from people all over the world – that’s nice, even if some of them call me a “scumbag … in the service of evil.” LN:
On page two you break your thesis down into three parts. 1) “…there was insufficient evidence for the press to conclude that Palin was telling the truth about Trig.” 2) The press gave “Palin more deference than she was due.” 3) “…spiral of silence theory casts light on press performance relative to the Trig hoax rumor and, relatedly, the Obama fake birth-certificate rumor.” My question is this: you see these as inter-related obviously. Why? How did you come back to these three main points after researching this story? BS:
Well, as to #1, what evidence did Palin provide that she was Trig’s mother after the rumors spread over the Internet that she wasn’t? She merely waved a shiny object in the air and distracted the oh-so-easily-distracted press. The shiny object was her daughter, Bristol, and while waving her in the air she said, “Just look at that baby bump. Obviously, I’m Trig’s mother.” And that is the sum total of her new evidence since she was selected as McCain’s VP candidate.
What I just said about #1 also answers #2 about giving Palin more deference than she was due. In my paper I point out how some journalists in a private chat group speculated that maybe it would be in the best interest of the Palin family for any hoax to remain hidden, and thus journalists should ignore the hoax if there was one. Since when does the hypothetical best interest of a candidate’s family outweigh the right of the public to know about the trustworthiness or even mental health of that candidate?
As to #3, I’m interested in why the press came to avoid the Palin hoax story like kryptonite, but at the same time gave the Obama hoax story great play, both back in 2008 and, as we see, up to the present day. And as I argue in the paper, the reason in part has to do with how easily the press is manipulated by politicos on the right who want the Palin story buried, while at the same time folks on the left don’t know how to keep crazy-like-a-fox birthers from planting doubts about whether Obama meets the constitutional requirements to be president. BS: Laura,
here’s a question for you: Can you conceive of a circumstance under which you might wait 20 hours after your water broke to go to a medical facility? How about if you had an important speech to give eight hours later? What if you were in Texas and, in a fit of state pride, decided you would gird your loins and make it back to California because “Whoever heard of a surfer born in Texas?” LN:
Dude. (May I call you Dude?) My personal story is illustrative of what a high-risk, very complicated pregnancy can be. That’s all. But it’s food for thought for those who have no exposure to that world. My son’s birth defect was discovered in utero at 20 weeks. By 29 weeks, he wanted to come into the world. I stopped working out and went on bed rest and a rough regime of drugs to keep him inside me. I had massive amounts of amniotic fluid building up in me. In fact, I lost hearing in one ear from it. Had my water broken, it could have been very dangerous. As it was, it took four people to break it in the operating room. So, I am the last person to ask about leaking fluid and long plane rides. You might as well ask me how the food is on Mars.
To prepare my son to come into the world as healthy as possible, my obstetrician ordered me to be injected with betamethazone, a steroid that would boost his lung development. I got the shots twice a week, 24 hours apart, for 5 weeks. On that fifth week, when I was 35 weeks along, the doctor did an amniocentesis in the hospital to test the baby’s lung development. This is the same amnio that is done early in a pregnancy for genetic testing. At that late stage, it was very painful…and very risky. It could have started labor at 35 weeks and she did not want that!
This is a triple marker test and two of the markers came back positive, meaning good, that the baby was ready. The third was graded on a bell curve. The doctor wanted to see a level 2.0. Mine was 1.8. She sent me home again. Those were not fun days. The following week, she did another amniocentesis in the hospital, under radiology. The three markers indicated that the baby had enough surfactant and his lungs were ready for him to be born.
Short of that kind of testing, I don’t know how a doctor can determine if a baby’s lungs are ready for birth. But at 35 and 36 weeks, my OB decided against delivery until she had medical proof that it was safe. I should point out that she is a member of FACOG as were the two perinatologists (high risk OB’s) who I also saw. She was also a surgeon. And in those days, their malpractice insurance was in the 6-figures. I don’t know how doctors manage risk when it comes to a complicated baby with other issues who wants to enter the world at 35 weeks. But my OB was a cracker jack. Nothing got by her. She took no chances. BS:
Palin maintains she chose to give birth to a premature Down syndrome baby with a heart condition at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center, which lacks a neonatal intensive-care unit, and en route bypassed several hospitals that have neonatal ICU's. As someone who had a premature baby yourself, does this ring true? LN:
It was long known that our baby would be transported as soon as he was born to the Children’s Hospital a mile away even though our birth hospital had a Level II nursery (it does not handle surgical patients). We had already met our pediatric surgeon. They had a bed ready for our son that night. And by bed, I mean a space in the Level Three Intensive Care Nursery. This is a major, regional trauma center and pediatric facility with dozens of pediatric sub-specialties. One of those subspecialties is pediatric cardiology.
I delivered in an adult hospital in a major city. A neonatologist, or high-risk pediatrician, from the team that serves the neonatal nursery in that hospital as well as at the children’s hospital down the street, was present at the birth. She was present at the birth.
We have a picture of her in scrubs, with her gloved hand on the top of our son’s head on the warming table in the corner of the operating room with 4 other people around the baby.
During my pregnancy, we had a fetal
echo-cardiogram to rule out heart problems. This was done at the children’s hospital, even though I was a pregnant lady, not a child. Two pediatric cardiologists did the scan and interpreted what they were seeing. The results were not good. A serious defect was suspected. The case got more complicated and my OB, the perinatologist who ordered the test, and our pediatric surgeon all talked to us about it. So, as soon as our son was transported to the NICU at Children’s that night (yes, night, he was born at night!) they ordered up another echo-cardiogram on him. The results were blessedly clear.
If you have a baby in a smaller regional hospital, without even a Level II nursery, I don’t know how heart defects are ruled out or confirmed, especially those that were suspected in utero. Does an adult radiologist or cardiologist do the test and interpret what they are seeing? Pediatric subspecialties require years of extra training. Would a pediatric cardiologist interpret or diagnose an adult’s echo-cardiogram? I would guess not. Does an adult doctor do that easily for a newborn? They probably can, but again, with all the changes the fetal/newborn heart goes through, I would think they wouldn’t. Did a pediatric cardiologist visit the smaller hospital where Trig Palin was reportedly born and do the scan there? Was there some other way to determine that his heart was okay and he was ready for discharge?
I offer no answers. But I wonder if there were
answers, would people feel differently about this entire controversy? I simply say that my own exposure to that world of medicine has left me with very specific questions about this story. I received an extraordinarily high level of care, as Mrs. Palin must have. And I was not a 44-year-old, multipara sitting governor or celebrity. I was a 34-year-old primo-gravida TV reporter with excellent insurance, top-notch hospitals near my house and an incredibly cautious team of board-certified doctors who took care to manage my health as well as their own liability and risk. Again…just medicine for thought.
When we come back, I would like to talk to you about the press coverage, both in terms of the birth and the purported hoax. I’m looking at page 5 of your paper and there’s some good stuff there to discuss.
Today I am going to take a bit of a detour from my fun, feisty, Quick Take Tuesday
interviews with authors about their books and my nascent novel, to talk with a man whose most recent work truly intrigues me. Bradford W. Scharlott, Ph.D.,
is a tenured professor of journalism and communications at Northern Kentucky University. Several days ago, he released an academic paper entitled “Palin, the Press and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor: Did a Spiral of Silence Shut down the Story?”
You can find the paper here on Scribd
, which is where, I feel compelled to add, I have more than 81,000 reads of my New York Times articles, essays and novel chapters.
I also have about 45,000 subscribers and I know it to be a social media site where every manner of document is available for reading, commenting and sharing.
Dr. Scharlott’s paper is 29-pages-long. Three of those comprise the bibliography. It contains photos of Sarah Palin either appearing pregnant, or not. But more importantly, it has ignited a firestorm of criticism, discussion
, and indignation.
I don’t know Dr. Scharlott from Adam. But I’m going to call him Brad during our conversation because we’ve now emailed enough times to get this ball rolling. I am also going to say this about Sarah Palin: I have a character in my novel, Finding Clarity,
that I call “Sarah Palin with a penis.” That is because he has very disorganized thought and speech patterns. I’m going to try to limit my opinion on her to that disclaimer.
As anyone can see from browsing my website, I worked in television and radio news – yes, even with Rush Limbaugh many years ago! – and for The New York Times, for decades. I attended Columbia University as an undergraduate and for Journalism school and was there the same years as Barack Obama apparently, though I don’t ever recall seeing him and I suspect he’d say the same of me.
I now consider myself a novelist and a blogger. I am also a happily married wife, a very active volunteer in my community, and a mother whose child was born prematurely with very intense medical issues (I’ll go into that.)
That said, this is going to be an informal conversation. I don’t have five editors breathing down my neck, so we’re free to make this dynamic, meaning mutable or changing over time. Some of the grammar might not be perfect. Let’s just see how this goes. LN
: Brad, I had no sooner read about your paper than I found myself reading criticism of it. Let’s start with that. What’s the reaction been? Are you getting hammered? Is the mainstream media taking note of this paper? BS:
Well the first reaction was pretty odd. Last week I sent a copy of my paper to Sarah Palin’s former press secretary asking if he had any comments, since he is mentioned in an unflattering way. He went ballistic. He called me a “scumbag” who is “in the service of evil.” He said he would slap me if he ever saw me, and that in a former age he would have challenged me to a duel. And then, under the heading “Brad Scharlott disgraces your university” he sent that critique of me in an email to all my colleagues in my department. I’m guessing he was used to using strong-arm tactics like that in Alaska. I guess he didn’t realize that 1) I am a tenured professor who can research anything I want, and 2) no one in Kentucky gives a shit about what he thinks.
And then something happened he didn’t count on. The student newspaper at my university learned what he did. So they interviewed me about his toxic rant and effort to embarrass me, and then they called him and got his view (he called for me to be fired), and then they posted a story about the matter in the online version of the student paper. And I thought, “What a golden opportunity!” So I asked the student newspaper editors if they wanted to post my paper online next to the story – and of course they did. And then it started spreading like wildfire. Exactly the opposite thing that Bill McAllister would have wanted.
As for reactions from journalists, a writer at Salon.com
took note of the paper in a negative way yesterday, suggesting my university should be embarrassed that I wrote it – but give the writer his due, he posted my paper for reading or downloading so readers could maker up their own minds. His article prompted Andrew Sullivan of Newsweek/DailyBeast
to essentially defend the appropriateness of my research – and to make the observation that the Salon writer was basically providing evidence in support of my thesis about a “spiral of silence.”
So those are the heaviest of the heavyweights to weigh in on my paper. There are blog sites devoted to revealing the truth concerning Trig’s birth, such as ImmoralMinority.com
, and folks there have treated me like a rock star. I’ve had dozens of emails and phone calls from people basically saying, “Thank God you’re doing this.” LN:
What’s your thesis? Why did you write an academic paper on this? What do you hope to do with it? BS:
My contention is that the mainstream press averted their eyes from obvious holes in Palin’s story about the birth of Trig, her supposed fifth child. My thesis is that, for a variety of reasons, a spiral of silence choked off any discussion of a possible hoax, and the very topic is so taboo the mainstream press has avoided it like the plague.
In a nutshell, a spiral of silence takes hold when people perceive an idea they hold is outside of what most people seem to think and therefore censor themselves, to avoid disapproval or ridicule. And the more such people censor themselves, the more outside the mainstream their view becomes, until the view is virtually extinguished from the mainstream, at least as represented in the mass media.
My hope for the paper has always been twofold. One objective is to do what academics like me typically do: present the paper at an academic conference and then publish in an academic journal. (I’ve submitted it to a conference – I’ll hear in next month if it has been accepted).
But the other objective has always been the overriding one: to use my paper to force the mainstream media to confront their negligence concerning the fantastic birth story and report on it. Since the fall of 2008 I have been dismayed by the cravenness of American journalists. I’m a former journalist myself, and now I am a journalism professor. My aim, in part, is to help reveal the truth. But even more than that, my aim is to help American journalism regain its integrity, in some small measure. BS:
I’m now going to ask you a question, Laura
. You were a reporter for a long time. Yet you’ve been out of the MSM for a while. What do you make of this pregnancy story? LN:
At some point I pitched the idea of investigating this story to one of my editors at The New York Times. I think we had some other conversations going and I never heard back on that specific point. This is a very awkward
story. And because of how polarizing Palin is – and I think people on all sides can agree with that – this birth story is also very polarizing. But from a journalism standpoint, the story the Anchorage Daily News proposed about why
this story won’t go away was an appropriate one. I actually emailed Pat Dougherty about why his paper gave up on it following that contentious email correspondence with Mrs. Palin. He told me, and I must have the email somewhere, that Trig is her son. He seemed to perhaps
have some inside knowledge. Still, I think it was a valid question to pursue publicly. But they stopped doing that. I still wonder why. But back to awkward.
This controversy involves body parts and an innocent child. In many ways it’s the perfect
story because it’s so untouchable. BS:
You mentioned your own experience having a child with medical problems. How did that affect your own interpretation of this pregnancy story? LN:
Let me state clearly that I can see this story going either way. I can see arguments on both sides, which makes it such a great story because if anyone really reported this thoroughly, they could make arguments or find voices to articulate arguments either way and really write a fair
story. I’ve looked at many photos on many blogs and one minute I can say: Oh right! And the next: Nah, not really.
But what I can state unequivocally is this: My son was born in Berkeley at 6:50 p.m. I’ve never said in one speech that he was born 10 miles away in San Francisco or 40 miles away at Stanford. I’ve never said in one speech that he was born “that night” and in another that he was born “the next morning.” Those
are the things that are immutable. Those
facts cannot come out of my mouth differently from one day to the next.
My son also spent three months living in neonatal intensive care. When he was older, I spent five years volunteering in that unit. I’ve written extensively and publicly about both times in our lives. So I’ve seen many comments over the past three years stating all manner of misinformation or speculation about what would happen to a preemie with a hole in its heart (reportedly Trig) and what kind of bed or environment such a baby would live in. So in the absence of any real reporting, holes are filled in with conjecture, speculation, innuendo, and supposition.
But I’ll leave off today with this thought: my son was born at 36 and 5/7th weeks. To. The. Day. He weighed 5 pounds 14 ounces. When anyone asks, that’s my story. I’ve never said he was 7 months, 7.5 months, 8 months in utero. Again, these are immutable facts. And it’s the notion that a public figure, a famous woman, cannot adhere to the most important facts or moments in not only her
life, but in any woman’s life…well, that’s what makes this story not go away. That’s what makes this intriguing and compelling.
Let’s put together some more questions off line and come back and talk another day. We can dive in to more detail and really have a conversation about this. Thanks for joining me, Dr. Brad Scharlott.