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 happen?
BS: 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: Laura, 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?