Presswatch

The War Against the Normal

By From the November 2008 issue

Send to Kindle

I HAD THE PRIVILEGE of living most of my life in a small town,” Sarah Palin told the Republican National Convention. “I was just your average hockey mom.” To John McCain’s supporters, his selection of Alaska’s young, reform-minded governor as his running mate felt like a feminine remake of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But the media were determined to depict her as something out of Deliverance.

On August 31, two days after Palin joined the ticket, a hometown critic, Anne Kilkenny, sent out what became a widely circulated e-mail that claimed, among other things, that “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.”

Two days later, Time magazine repeated the tale, attributing it to John Stein, the incumbent mayor Palin had defeated in 1996:

Stein says that as mayor, Palin continued to inject religious beliefs into her policy at times. “She asked the library how she could go about banning books,” he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. “The librarian was aghast.” That woman, Mary Ellen Baker, couldn’t be reached for comment, but news reports from the time show that Palin had threatened to fire Baker for not giving “full support” to the mayor.

The same day, Jessamyn West, a Vermont librarian, posted the Time story to her website, Librarian.net, and added that “Mary Ellen Baker resigned from her library director job in 1999.” A reader of West’s site named Andrew Aucoin then posted “the list of books Palin tried to have banned”—90 of them in all. But another Librarian. net reader traced the list to a website where it appeared under the title “Books Banned at One Time or Another in the United States.”

Not only was the list a fake, but when the Anchorage Daily News investigated the story, it found no evidence that Palin had ever sought to remove books from the library. Back in 1996, Baker (then Mary Ellen Emmons) did tell the Wasilla paper, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, that Palin asked her, in the Daily News’s words, “about possibly removing objectionable books from the library if the need arose.” Emmons “flatly refused to consider any kind of censorship.”

Kilkenny made an appearance in the Daily News story, quoting Palin as asking Baker at a city council meeting, “What would be your response if I asked you to remove some books from the collection?” Emmons’s response was firm and negative, according to Kilkenny, who acknowledged that Palin did not cite any specific books for removal.

The chairman of the Alaska Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee told the Daily News that there was no evidence in her files of any censorship at the Wasilla library. As for the librarian’s resignation, it appeared to be unrelated to the putative censorship:

Four days before the exchange at the City Council, Emmons got a letter from Palin asking for her resignation. Similar letters went to police chief Irl Stambaugh, public works director Jack Felton and finance director Duane Dvorak.… Palin told the Daily News back then the letters were just a test of loyalty as she took on the mayor’s job, which she’d won from three-term mayor John Stein in a hard-fought election. Stein had hired many of the department heads. Both Emmons and Stambaugh had publicly supported him against Palin. Emmons survived the loyalty test and a second one a few months later. She resigned in August 1999, two months before Palin was voted in for a second mayoral term.

The story had been so thoroughly debunked by September 11–12, when Palin sat for a series of interviews with ABC News’s Charlie Gibson, that Gibson lobbed a softball:

Gibson: There’s a lot on the Internet about a conversation you did or did not have with a librarian about banning books. Want to clear up what’s on the Internet?

Palin: I never banned a book, never desired to ban a book.…It kind of cracked me up seeing the list of books that I supposedly banned—one of them was Harry Potter! It wasn’t even written or published then.

But Gibson repeated another falsehood, as the ABC transcript shows:

Gibson: You said recently, in your old church, “Our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God.” Are we fighting a holy war?

Palin: You know, I don’t know if that was my exact quote.

Gibson: Exact words.

Palin: But the reference there is a repeat of Abraham Lincoln’s words when he said—first, he suggested never presume to know what God’s will is, and I would never presume to know God’s will or to speak God’s words. But what Abraham Lincoln had said, and that’s a repeat in my comments, was let us not pray that God is on our side in a war or any other time, but let us pray that we are on God’s side.

This story appears to have originated with an Associated Press dispatch of September 3, which began: “Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told ministry students at her former church that the United States sent troops to fight in the Iraq war on a ‘task that is from God.’” Yet the day before the AP’s report, the liberal-left Huffington Post had posted a video of Palin’s actual words:

Pray for our military men and women who are striving to do what is right. Also, for this country, that our leaders, our national leaders, are sending them [soldiers] out on a task that is from God. That’s what we have to make sure that we’re praying for, that there is a plan and that that plan is God’s plan.

ABC apparently realized its mistake. When it aired the interview, the network cut the lines in which Palin disputed the quote and Gibson insisted it was her “exact words.” In their place was a YouTube clip that made clear Palin was praying, not asserting, that Iraq was a task from God.

An AP dispatch on the interview relied on the wire service’s own inaccurate reporting of a week earlier in claiming that Palin had “contradicted an assertion she made at her former church that ‘our national leaders are sending U.S. soldiers on a task that is from God.’ ” That claim disappeared from later versions of the AP story.

Neither the AP nor ABC issued a correction. And although a September 13 New York Times news story pointed out ABC’s YouTube sleight-of-hand, a Times editorial the same day repeated the false story:

Her answers about why she had told her church that President Bush’s failed policy in Iraq was “God’s plan” did nothing to dispel our concerns about her confusion between faith and policy. Her claim that she was quoting a completely unrelated comment by Lincoln was absurd.

When they weren’t portraying her as a religious nut, journalists in and out of the mainstream were trying to paint Palin as a bad mother. At its most respectable, this took the form of a September 2 New York Times story titled “A New Twist in the Debate on Mothers”:

With five children, including an infant with Down syndrome and, as the country learned Monday, a pregnant 17-year-old, Ms. Palin has set off a fierce argument among women about whether there are enough hours in the day for her to take on the vice presidency, and whether she is right to try.

In his convention keynote speech the next day, Rudy Giuliani asked indignantly: “How dare they question whether Sarah Palin has enough time to spend with her children and be vice president? How dare they do that? When do they ever ask a man that question? When?” Indeed, neither the Times story nor most others in the genre noted that when Joe Biden took his Senate seat in 1973, he was the single father of two boys, two and three years old. (Biden’s wife and their year-old daughter had died in a car accident three weeks earlier.)

Palin had announced that her daughter Bristol was pregnant in order to put an end to a bizarre rumor that Bristol was the real mother of Trig Palin, the governor’s youngest son, who was born in April 2008 and has Down syndrome. This crackpot story originated on the Angry Left website DailyKos.com, and mainstream media mostly kept mum about it.

But there was one notable exception: the Atlantic, which published a series of screeds on its website demanding that Palin provide proof of maternity.

Bristol’s pregnancy moved this theory from the realm of the preposterous to the impossible. But the Atlantic wasn’t finished with Trig Palin. Its writer repeatedly described Palin’s decision to give birth to a child with Down syndrome as a act of politics—a salvo in a “culture war” and an effort to prove her “pro-life credentials”—rather than of maternal love. A writer for the left-liberal Salon.com echoed the claim: “Her Down syndrome baby and pregnant teenage daughter unequivocally prove… that her most beloved child is the antiabortion platform that ensures her own political ambitions with the conservative right.”

Newsweek’s website even published an article by a professor at the University of Chicago, where Barack Obama once taught, that said of Palin: “Her greatest hypocrisy is in her pretense that she is a woman.” This does not speak well for the state of sex education in Illinois.

THE MEDIA ATTACKS on Palin proved devastating for Obama’s campaign. As I write, in mid-September, McCain is ahead in the polls, after trailing Obama throughout the spring and summer. One survey in early September found that 51 percent of Americans thought reporters were “trying to hurt” Palin; only 35 percent thought journalists were even trying to provide unbiased coverage. Obama got angry; his campaign promised what a September 12 headline on the Washington Post website called an “aggressive response to GOP attacks.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, “the media are getting mad” as well, the Post’s Howard Kurtz reported on September 11:

The McCain camp has already accused the MSM of trying to “destroy” the governor of Alaska. So any challenge to her record or her veracity can now be cast as the product of an oh-so-unfair press. Which, needless to say, doesn’t exactly please reporters.

The New York Times reported on September 12 that Obama’s campaign “seemed flummoxed in figuring out how to deal with [Palin]. His aides said they were looking to the news media to debunk the image of her as a blue-collar reformer.”

Instead, by waging war against Sarah Palin for being normal, Obama’s supporters in the media succeeded in transforming him into the candidate of those who oppose religion and motherhood. By the time you read this, perhaps they’ll have gone negative on apple pie.

James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for OpinionJournal.com.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for OpinionJournal.com.