BS: Laura, an interesting question to me is, What standard of proof should a journalist use in deciding whether the Babygate hoax likely happened? And if you conclude that it probably did happen, how do you present the alleged hoax to the public in your writing?
LN: I notice that you use the word “alleged” in your own writing here, Brad. That’s what we’re trained to do. and rightly so. But let’s step back a minute. A journalist does not have to decide on their own, or on the merits of the information available on the blogs - because, let’s face it, that is where the best reporting on this subject resides - that the birth story is a hoax. A journalist only has to see a reason for doing a story. And they have to have the integrity, and perhaps the stamina, to pursue all sides fairly. To give voice to dissent. Is that what happened with the Anchorage Daily News? Did they simply run out of stamina? Where they overwhelmed by Palin's protestations? Because as the then governor continued to be reported on in the blogosphere, the baby hoax was the primary subject. It was still being investigated by a lot of really, really good bloggers who have not chickened out. The newspaper did.
BS: Let me note that one problem we as journalists face is the unwillingness of Palin herself to even respond to questions about the alleged hoax. In general terms she has denied there was a hoax, but sometimes in artful ways.
For example, in an email she asked Pat Dougherty, editor of the Anchorage Daily News, if his paper was “pursuing the sensational lie that I am not Trig’s mother.” Notice that she did not say “biological mother.” Did Sarah Palin adopt the Down syndrome child she calls Trig? If she did, then of course she is his mother, his adoptive mother. And even if there was no adoption, she could argue that simply holding herself out as the mother makes her the mother.
LN: But note, also, too, that she says “sensational lie” right out of the gate. Not “the story” or “the allegation.” But she planted the idea that the allegation was a lie, without even having to explain why it was a lie. And she never did. She put Dougherty on the defensive. And, well, you know how I feel about this. He whined until he gave in – but not until he reassured her that he was on her side. How’s that for an independent press?
BS: And as you know, she stonewalled him after that, even after he published this line: “It strikes me that if there is never a clear, contemporaneous public record of what transpired with Trig's birth, that may actually ensure that the conspiracy theory never dies.” The fact that she never responded has always struck me as a tacit admission of guilt on her part.
LN: People probably wonder why bloggers don’t go to Palin directly and pose their questions. And perhaps snorting, “Oh right, like she’d answer me” isn’t a good enough answer. Instead, I asked Rebecca Mansour many times on Twitter to respond to my blog posts. And I invited her, many times, to do an interview with me. It was only fair. And she was predictably mute.
You, on the other hand, went directly to Sarah. Tell us about that, Brad.
BS: I’ve revised my original Babygate paper as a magazine article. A couple of weeks ago I sent that to Sarah Palin’s Wasilla address, and she received it on August 15, according to the USPS tracking service. In a cover letter I asked her to respond to the article, and I also asked six specific questions that stem from it, such as whether she was truly pregnant in 2008 and whether she wore a fake pregnancy belly when Andrea Gusty interviewed her. I told her I planned to publish the article within a month, and I promised her I would include her response with it.
Of course, she has not responded. So what can we concluded from that?
LN: One, she’s too big for us. And I can honestly understand that (although word has it that she is afraid of me.) There are a lot of demands on her time. Why? I have no idea. But there are. Two, why add fuel to the fire? To respond to you and/or me, or any blogger, lends credence to what we are saying. She’s hoping we’ll go away. Three, like I said in an earlier comment. We use subjects and verbs. And we use them in agreement. I think Anon on Gryphen's blog is right: that scares her.
BS: Well, if she did NOT perpetrate a hoax, there would be an extremely important reason to respond to my letter and article. In that cover letter, I wrote:
“As you may recall from your journalism studies in college, you are considered a ‘public figure/official’ for First Amendment purposes, in light of NY Times v. Sullivan. By providing you this opportunity to respond to my paper, I trust I am demonstrating beyond any doubt that my article bears no ‘actual malice’ towards you.”
Since I was forewarning her that I plan to publish the article, by NOT responding she essentially forfeits any conceivable opportunity to sue for defamation. That is not the same as admitting she is guilty, of course, but could you imagine an innocent high-level politician ignoring an article that made such sensational allegations of wrongdoing? After all, I’m not just any crackpot. Palin knows my paper in April made news around the world.
LN: So then, let’s go back to standards of proof. Clarify the issue for us.
BS: Two are commonly used in court. In civil trials, where one individual brings a lawsuit against another, the standard chiefly used is “a preponderance of evidence.” This might be interpreted to mean “more likely than unlikely.”
Joe McGinniss has seemingly reached that point in his blog concerning Babygate. Not long ago he wrote that, regarding Trig, “anything is possible, but … it’s more possible than not that Sarah’s whole story is a lie.” But does that mean he is ready to call Palin out on the hoax when he hits the talk show circuit after his book comes out? Not necessarily. In the same post (June 14, 2011), he also wrote:
“I’m still not convinced (i.e. persuaded beyond a reasonable doubt), but recent close readings of the newly-released Palin emails by Jesse Griffin at Immoral Minority and Andrew Sullivan at Daily Dish bring me closer to concluding that Sarah’s tale is an absolute and utter fraud and that Trig, in fact, was not her baby.”
We see in his parenthetical expression above the other chief standard of guilt: “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That’s a higher standard than “preponderance of guilt,” and it is used in criminal trials. A few months ago Joe suggested that this higher standard is the one that should be used by journalists concerning Babygate, because Palin’s crime against the American people, if she did perpetrate the birth hoax, would be tantamount to a capital offense.
When Joe writes above that he is still not “convinced” that Palin perpetrated Babygate, what I think he means is that he does not feel that he or any other journalist, at this time, can make the case beyond a reasonable doubt that Palin faked the birth. I suspect in his heart of hearts, he harbors little doubt about her guilt, but until he’s ready to publicly call her a hoaxer and back it up with a near air-tight case, he probably feels a need to carefully calibrate his public comments. And that strikes me as both responsible and pragmatic.
LN: I agree. There is little margin of error for a well-known and highly regarded reporter/writer who is about to launch a book in which he must objectively report on many facets of this woman’s life and career. Babygate is just one subject. If he got sloppy and merely jumped on a bandwagon about this sensational subject, it could cast doubt on how thorough or objective he was while reporting on more mundane or drier aspects of her career.
Meantime, how about you, Brad? You’re a journalist and an academician. How do you phrase it to people who ask?
BS: In my spiral-of-silence paper that was posted to the Internet in April, I wrote that it was “likely” that Palin had perpetrated a birth hoax – and I used that not-too-forceful phrasing when media interviewed me. So I was effectively arguing that merely a preponderance of evidence suggested she perpetrated a hoax. However, in my heart of hearts, I believed that it was a near certainty – beyond a reasonable doubt – that she had lied about Trig. But ethically and pragmatically, I felt it was prudent to be cautious in suggesting Palin had lied.
I felt it was ethically best to be cautious because, unlike in a courtroom situation, when you accuse someone in print of wrongdoing, the accused gets no immediate chance to rebut the accusations. And it was pragmatic to be cautious because the alleged wrongdoing in this case borders on the unbelievable – it’s breathtaking to think a woman capable of such a staggeringly devious hoax could have gotten within a heartbeat of the presidency. I was concerned last April that if I came across as too cocksure there was a hoax, I could be dismissed as a partisan or a lunatic.
I know that you also have wrestled with these issues, Laura. What works best for you in thinking about and writing about whether Palin is guilty of perpetrating a hoax?
LN: I wrote about this in my Watergate post a few weeks back. I called it the “Bradlee 1%.” It’s not intentional or legalistic, but I find that I employ the same phrase, and that is that Palin’s story “doesn’t add up.” Furthermore, I say that there is more evidence to make someone question her version of events than there is evidence to suggest she is telling the truth.
But I really try to separate my own personal feelings about the woman, her politics of hate, and her obvious lack of education. And this allows me to easily say that her story about this birth simply does not add up. It really warrants broader investigation and attention. And so we cycle back to why the mainstream media avoids it like the plague.
But instead of holding up the MSM as all mighty and worthy, perhaps we need to establish new criteria. The bloggers are all doing great work with this in their own way. There are strengths in this community that simply don’t exist elsewhere. One might ask: who needs the MSM any longer? Who are they to us? What value do they hold for this particular story?
BS: Those are great questions, which we perhaps can address in a future post. Meantime, I’m hoping Joe McGinniss feels he can call Palin out on the hoax when he hits the talk show circuit. I hope he believes he can make the case – beyond a reasonable doubt – that Palin has tried to pull off one of the greatest hoaxes in American political history. Nobody can say Joe lacks guts. And I can say, without a doubt, that Joe is one of America’s greatest living journalists.
As for me, when my revised article does appear, I’ll be more forceful than before in suggesting that Sarah Palin very likely is a deeply disturbed pathological liar who possesses an inordinate fondness for foam undergarments.
LN: Thanks so much Brad. You inform and educate. And you make me laugh. It’s always a pleasure working on these posts with you.