New media, old media, and the Palin defect

The Alaska governor's vetting in the media was abetted by new forms of journalism and polished by old.
Crosscut archive image.
The Alaska governor's vetting in the media was abetted by new forms of journalism and polished by old.

When word first hit that Gov. Sarah Palin was McCain's choice for running mate, I was one of few people not caught completely off guard, scratching my head, saying, "Palin who?" I'd spent the previous week working with a writer in Juneau, Bob Tkacz, on a series about the Alaska corruption scandals for Crosscut. But familiarity aside, the wide gulf between what I knew then and what I know now attests to the power of both traditional media and the blogosphere. Despite attempts by political parties to control the message, old and new media combined can take down a candidate.

Tkacz ended his Crosscut piece with this pronouncement, in reference to what was, even before Palin's VP nomination, called "Troopergate":

The ongoing episode has probably killed the sliver of a chance Palin had to become John McCain's vice presidential running mate, though she has consistently said she is not seeking a spot on the national Republican ticket.

So much for Palin's protestations. The following week, McCain made his pick public, and the blogosphere hasn't been the same since. From the time of McCain's announcement late on Aug. 28 to the Republican National Convention on Sept. 4, interest in Alaska's guv amongst bloggers steadily climbed, peaking at more than 30,000 posts per day at the time of her RNC speech, according to Technorati. Coincidentally, it was a blogger, Andrew Halcro, who first reported on the firing of Alaska State Trooper Mike Wooten, with the rest of Alaska media following suit. Palin had trounced Halcro when he ran against her as an independent in 2006. Turnabout seems to indeed be fair play in this case.

One of the most damaging screeds against Palin presented itself in the form of an e-mail penned by a woman in Wasilla who knew Palin well and raised objection to her candidacy. The e-mail gained serious and immediate traction online, where some questioned author Anne Kilkenny's veracity. Crosscut Editor Chuck Taylor called Kilkenny in Wasilla and managed to get her on the phone before she was barraged with media inquiries. She checked out, and we were one of, if not the first, sites to run her e-mail message in its entirety.

Kilkenny's argument was persuasive. "Everyone here knows Sarah," she wrote, "so it is nothing special to say we are on a first-name basis." She refrained from the vilifying tenor of most liberal bloggers, sticking to what she maintained were the facts:

While Sarah was mayor of Wasilla, she tried to fire our highly respected city librarian because the librarian refused to consider removing from the library some books that Sarah wanted removed. City residents rallied to the defense of the city librarian and against Palin's attempt at out-and-out censorship, so Palin backed down and withdrew her termination letter. People who fought her attempt to oust the librarian are on her enemies list to this day.

The message was later distorted by some who falsely claimed that Palin had banned a long list of books. Like any powerful medium, blogs have been used to obfuscate the truth as much as they have been used to clarify it. The Kilkenny case underscores the promise of blogs and new media: A citizen journalist with rare expertise but no credentials receives an immediate, worldwide forum.

But where bloggers often lack the time and resources to tread, traditional media rush in. Reporters for the venerable Seattle Times, and not bloggers, combed through boxes of National Archives documents to piece together the story of Palin's turbulent tenure as mayor. "Her first months were so contentious and polarizing that critics started talking recall," they reported, detailing Palin's personal challenges, controversial firings, a standoff with a local newspaper, and stormy professional relationships with friends who became enemies, and vice versa. Kilkenny and a legion of bloggers opened the door, shining a light on areas that deserved scrutiny; then old-school reporters took up the charge.

Perhaps the single most damning media moment for Palin was the televised interview series with Katie Couric, which revealed an unprepared, naive Sarah Palin who lacked polish and poise. No matter how well she did during the vice presidential debate, discriminating viewers would be hard-pressed to defend a VP candidate who, when pushed for concrete examples of her running mate's track record on Wall Street reform, responded with, "I'll try to find you some and I'll bring them to you." It was a golden moment for the opposition, one made possible by a media technology platform that hasn't changed appreciably since the 1940s.

Writing on that morning after McCain's announcement of Palin as his running mate, I said:

As the young, female counterpoint to Obama, her candidacy for vice president could work in McCain's favor in a way that no other candidate would have, drawing middle-aged Clinton supporters and young, more conservative voters originally favoring Obama to the Republican side — unless she says something dumb (she hasn't yet) or the corruption scandals rocking Alaska brush her more forcefully than they already have.

That was before Anne Kilkenny, before Troopergate received national attention; it was before reports of Palin's strident religious views and support of decidedly anti-feminist policies came to light. It was before Palin was rightfully subject to the force of media scrutiny, from the full spectrum of what the word "media" has come to mean in 2008.


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