“Redefining the ‘Private Lives’ of Public Officials - Women journalists have played a major role in this changing coverage.” (Nieman Reports, Spring 2002.)
The author, Florence George Graves, points to the media coverage of the sexual abuses of Senator Bob Packwood in the early 1990s as a breakthrough for the press in how it defines what is private vs. what is public in a politician’s sexual behavior.
Up to that time, most editors shied away from stories of sexual predation by powerful men, viewing such behavior as “personal,” perhaps even a perk of high office. But thanks especially to women journalists, that old barrier fell. Does her thesis ring true for you?
LN: This is a wonderful article and I encourage everyone to read it. About half way down, Graves cites a fellow, male reporter who described editors as “skittish” about covering stories involving sex. That is the same word people have used over and over for nearly 3 years when writing about the Palin pregnancy controversy. It took Graves, as a woman, to break open that Packwood story, and it’s taken women to say Palin’s story does not pass the sniff test now. Now, that is not to discount any of the myriad men who have called Palin and her husband out on the improbability of their Trig story. But had women not been willing to talk about fluids and body parts, perhaps men might have stepped back, out of concern for propriety.
BS: I was struck by how the journalists reporting the Packwood matter focused on the human cost of ignoring what Packwood had done: dozens of women over the many years he was in power had been abused. Many were terrified of the man and quit their jobs rather than face continued sexual harassment. Ultimately, many of those women testified against him in congressional hearings, leading to his expulsion from the Senate.
Which brings us to Sarah Palin. Obviously, the actions of Sarah Palin are very different from those of Bob Packwood. But, even so, do you see any parallels?
Now Brad, let me ask you something. Graves goes on to write briefly about Gary Hart and his frolicking on the Monkey Business yacht in 1987. He did nothing illegal. But the ethics of his cavorting were enough to make him a funny footnote in American political history. Why hasn’t Palin been laughed off the page yet?
BS: Graves pointed to the “evolution” of reporting in the context of the Packwood case, and I think that’s apt. The evolution to that point, in the early 1990s, meant that men’s sexual offenses, if they were substantial enough, were no longer off-limits. The Hart affair in the 1980s may have been a special case, coming as early as it did, because he dared the press to prove he was a womanizer – and the press took him up on it. But certainly the press treated JFK’s sexual peccadilloes in the 1960s as beyond the pale of what they could report.
This evolution of reporting apparently has not reached the point where women politicians are subjected to the same scrutiny as men in all matters relating to sex. For example, two different men claimed last year, when Nikki Haley, a married woman, was running for governor of South Carolina, that they had had affairs with her. Yet the allegations received little attention in the press and she was elected governor.
But Palin, of course, is in a different universe from Nikki Haley. I am not aware of any other politician in U.S. history who most likely faked the birth of a child. There’s no precedent for how the press should respond. Reporters learned to use words like “penis” and “semen-stained dress” during Clinton’s impeachment trial but balked at asking whether amniotic fluid leaked out of Palin’s vagina. Nicole Wallace of the McCain election team used that very word – “Are you really asking what came out of the governor’s vagina?” – to shut down a male reporter who tried to ask about Palin’s purported leaks.
LN: I am so struck by Graves’ memory of trying, as a freelance reporter, to convince many periodicals to allow her to report on Packwood. Only The Washington Post took a chance on her story. One of the excuses other news organizations gave her was: If it were truly a story, someone would have done it by now. Sound familiar?
BS: Well, with Packwood there was general acknowledgement he had been a serial womanizer, at the very least. In the case of Palin, I cannot think of a single prominent U.S. journalist who publicly says he or she thinks Palin likely committed a hoax – I’m counting Andrew Sullivan as mainly a blogger here – but Joe McGinniss recently came right to the edge of calling Palin out on the fake birth. I have been told off-the-record that various high-level journalists concede the likelihood that Palin perpetrated a hoax, so McGinniss is unique only in his willingness to go public with his suspicions.
LN: But let’s get back to the question of harm. What is the harm, Palin supporters ask, even if she did fake the birth of Trig?
BS: I would say that a pathology of fear has enveloped much of Alaska, especially the Wasilla area, over this issue. You have to remember that Sarah Palin is demonstrably ruthless, unethical, and vengeful – it’s good to keep in mind her campaign to destroy the career of Mike Wooten, her former brother-in-law. Plus, in the space of four weeks in late 2008 and early 2009, fires in Wasilla damaged Palin’s church and caused the death of a former neonatal nurse, Dar Miller. The church fire was due to arson; the cause of the fire at Miller’s home was not determined. Some people speculated that adoption records perished in the church fire, but I can find no confirmation of that.
There’s no evidence linking the Palins to those fires. But several Alaskans have told me that Wasilla residents fear they may suffer similar fates if they cross the Palins. Certainly Alaskans have good reason to fear they may lose their jobs if they anger Sarah Palin, as safety commissioner Walter Monahan did when he refused to fire Mike Wooten. She may not be in power now, but many of her loyal appointees are.
LN: And I might add here that I know first hand about people who talk, and then clam up, because they know that people are whispering about them. I know about people in government putting pressure on reporters not to report. About newspaper reporters who were talking to me one day, and then shutting down the conversation the next.
BS: And then there are stories of people who know too much or said the wrong thing about the Palins, who then suffered vandalism or worse, such as the documented case of a car window being shot out while children were inside – the apparent reason: an anti-Palin personalized license place.
I would further argue, Laura, that this pathology of fear has spawned a pathology of deceit. You recently noted how all the reporters, editors and columnists at the Alaska Daily News have seemingly been told to sing from the same hymnal concerning the fake birth question – contradicting earlier actions by ADN staff – even though the newspaper provides no documentary evidence to support the claim that Palin birthed Trig. And as I’ve noted before, former ADN reporter Wes Loy, who famously wrote that Palin “simply does not look pregnant,” for some reason decided to recant, despite evidence I provided that directly contradicts his alleged change of heart.
I am reminded of the fall of Saddam Hussein. After the liberation of Iraq, Iraqis came forward to say how terrible it had been to live in a society where saying anything negative about Saddam could have fatal consequences, and that therefore they were careful, even before their own children, to never to speak too freely. Alaska is not Iraq, of course, but I am sure there are people in Alaska who likewise are afraid to say what they know about the Palins and who dissemble in front of their children, lest loose lips lead to horrible consequences.
LN: It’s fascinating to me that this situation in Alaska with the Palins calls up for you a brutal regime where there were dire consequences for trafficking in the truth.
BS: Yes, and I am very serious when I say Alaska is in the grip of pathologies of fear and deceit. Packwood’s awful behavior affected dozens of women. Palin’s awful behavior has affected an unknown number of Alaskans (but surely many more than the number of victims in the Packwood case), who live in fear to this very day. Plus there are many more Americans who effectively have been defrauded by this woman because they sent money to SarahPAC, or paid to hear her speak, based on massive lies she has told.
And speaking of deceit, Sarah Palin’s books, and the just released book by Bristol, might be called works of “magical realism,” where some elements of reality mix with seeming magic, such as superhuman control over leaking bodily fluids and birth contractions, in the case of Sarah; or the recovery of virginal innocence – until a fateful night of wine coolers – by a teen who used to call herself a slut, in the case of Bristol.
But maybe Bristol’s book went too far in suggesting Levi was guilty of date rape. Just after her book came out, the two photos below were “discovered” at Mercede and Sherry Johnston’s home (and a giant hat tip to Gryphen for first publishing them):
LN: It could be me, Brad. I am willing and able. And, just as importantly, it could be any member of the posse of incredibly dedicated and fearless bloggers and writers who have not been afraid to say, for close to three years now, that this story, and many others involving that administration, stinks. When people say this story is too old now, and offer a who cares shrug of the shoulders, Graves’ article reminds us that it took years for the truth to come out about Packwood. Cognitive dissonance was alive and well in California for – how old is Arnold’s love child? – two full terms. Edwards and Wiener look like pretenders, who got the short end of the stick (if you’ll pardon the pun) in terms of a reprieve from the media who were on to them, compared to Schwarzennegger. But in the end, the press exposed all three of these men. So is the press now ready to go after Palin?
Considering what we know of corporate-owned MSM, I doubt it. They are hemorrhaging money and they employ armies of attorneys who will advise them that they can’t afford to hemorrhage any more. Which, at the risk of sounding smug, is too bad, because this is a hell of a story to work on. And the final barrier of protecting a woman politician, and her private parts, needs to come down.
Thank you, Brad, for sharing this enlightening article with me. I enjoyed reading it and talking with you once again.