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 Politicalgates.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.