Sarah Palin's Ripping Yarns!

Is it really the media's job to "ask questions," no matter how batty?


It's a question with a depressingly obvious answer, and one asked repeatedly since John McCain (R-Ariz.) announced that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin would be his running mate: If challenged to expound on the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam, or if quizzed on the three largest cities in Iraq, or the broad details of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just how well would the 44 year-old self-described "hockey mom" acquit herself? By her own admission, Palin hasn't "focused much on the war in Iraq," so it isn't unreasonable to expect shallow and platitudinous foreign policy answers, at this point anyway.

The McCain campaign tacitly acknowledged that foreign policy was not Palin's strong suit when a senior advisor commented that she will, after all, soon "learn at the foot of the master." But her record as governor, her pork-busting accomplishments, campaign surrogates stress, will please economic conservatives and libertarians. As anti-Real ID activist Bill Scannell, an Alaska native, told reason's Matt Welch, Palin "has been a pretty freaking awesome governor." Denver Post columnist and reason contributor David Harsanyi says that "for libertarians—in the broadest sense of the small 'l' word—she's the best candidate they can expect." And I suppose it is encouraging that, as a 2006 opposition research dossier obtained by Politico.com noted, with evident horror, Palin has attended at least one Libertarian Party meeting, at a Denny's restaurant in Anchorage.

But as the mainstream media checked her "bridge to nowhere" claims—she was for it before she was against it—a small segment of the blogosphere was chasing a bizarre rumor that Sarah Palin's newborn baby Trig was not her son, but her grandson. "It's the wackiest rumor about Sarah Palin or any other politician so far this election," wrote The Huffington Post's Lee Stranahan. At his Time magazine blog, Tom Bevan observed that "all the major media outlets shied away from repeating this crackpot theory."

Well, almost all major media outlets.

Over at The Atlantic's website, writer Andrew Sullivan, a passionate defender of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), posted a series of breathless blog items laying out the case (if it can be called that) against the perfidious Palin. There was no compelling evidence—circumstantial or otherwise—to support such a claim, but as Sullivan argued, it was the media's job to ask the uncomfortable questions.

So based on a hunch, he requested that the campaign "release Palin's medical records for the past year to rebut for good and all the rumors on the Internets and the very, very strange chronology surrounding the pregnancy and birth of Trig Palin." The onus was on the campaign to address every wild conspiracy theory floated online, he argued: "Why not kill this rumor with Palin's medical records?…Just release them, ok?…And we can all breathe a sigh of relief and move on." The frenzied posts continued: "There must be plenty of medical records and obstetricians and medical eye-witnesses prepared to testify to Sarah Palin's giving birth to Trig." Yet another post, demanding that the McCain people respond to his inquisition: "The McCain-Palin campaign can resolve this now with medical records, as are mandated for presidential candidates anyway." And one final request: "What harm would it do to release the medical records showing that Sarah Palin delivered Trig on April 18 in Wasilla?…So let's have them. And then we can move on."

Even after Palin announced that her daughter was pregnant, Sullivan couldn't exactly move on, and despite the chronological impossibility—to which he was previously so attentive—of the child actually belonging to the governor's daughter, Sullivan proclaimed: "Now all we need is confirmation from the obstetrician who delivered Sarah's baby, Trig."

At BeliefNet, "crunchy conservative" Rod Dreher was aghast at Sullivan's obsession with Trig's maternity: "Honestly, this kind of thing from someone whose work I often disagree with, but who I respect, leaves me speechless." Democratic strategist and blogger Jerome Armstrong, who in 2006 co-authored a book with the Daily Kos's Markos Moulitsas, denounced Sullivan for "pushing this nonsense" and equated the rumor with bogus questions about the authenticity of Obama's birth certificate

Questions of Palin's competence and experience, the thoroughness with which she was vetted, and her associations with a batty Christian church are not only legitimate but necessary. And it is probably worth noting that I share many of these concerns. But to camouflage a descent into partisan gutter sniping as the practice of journalistic due diligence is deeply disingenuous. On his blog, Sullivan dryly commented that McCain campaign outrage was itself outrageous: "The press is asking question. In other words: doing their job." Later, he wrote, "The job of a press is to ask questions which have a basis in fact."

What reporters do, as Sullivan surely knows, is ask important questions and address rumors by reporting, and only bringing them to readers' attention upon confirmation. I wouldn't be surprised to find that the crackpot conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Vince Foster contain compelling questions of motivation, chronology, etc.—all conspiracy theories, from the JFK assassination to the 9/11 "truth" movement do.  But it's worth calling out those grinding partisan axes—such as the "reporters" at Insight magazine who claimed that Obama was educated in a madrassa, which Sullivan rightly denounced as "sleazy"—who are dodging their critics by claiming that they are "just asking questions."

But rather than puffing his chest about the media's responsibility to seek the truth, Sullivan, as Byron York pointed out, forgot about the media's duty to actually engage in old-fashion reporting: "What is amazing about all this is how making just one phone call to a man like [Ancorage Daily News reporter Michael] Carey could have given some of the bloggers at The Atlantic and DailyKos pause before they wrote so extensively about it.  Why didn't they do that?" It's a good question, though one with a disappointingly banal answer: There now exists an idea that bloggers, as part of the broader media landscape, "ask questions" and demand "answers,"

In June, after both Republican and pro-Clinton bloggers spread rumors of a videotape featuring a fulminating Michelle Obama denouncing "whitey," Sullivan responded by quoting science blogger Jonah Lehrer: "Not only are we persuaded by false rumors that get repeated, but we're persuaded even when the false rumors get repeated by one person…That's why one popular and persistent blogger…can do so much damage."

A fair point, yes, Andrew?