By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 1 -- When Markos Moulitsas saw that one of the contributors to his liberal blog was accusing Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin of lying about her 4-month-old baby, he was a bit skeptical.
"I feel a little weird about the questions being asked," he says. "But I also feel a little weird about saying, 'Shut up, people.' It takes a lot for me to step in and squash what's on Daily Kos."
In less than 48 hours, the allegations by a Kos diarist known as ArcXIX ricocheted into the mainstream media, when John McCain's designated running mate announced Monday that her 17-year-old daughter is pregnant and plans to have the baby and marry the father.
The McCain campaign felt compelled to release the information, say two staffers who declined to be identified discussing internal strategy, after receiving inquiries from national reporters about the Kos posting and questions from Alaska reporters about local scuttlebutt that Bristol Palin was pregnant.
Campaign officials, expressing outrage at the questions, nonetheless concluded that Bristol's condition could no longer be kept secret after some British tabloids jumped on the allegations, such as London's Daily Mail reporting that Palin was "facing a dirty tricks campaign suggesting she was really the grandmother of her youngest son."
The campaign statement served to knock down the far-fetched suggestion on the Kos site -- based partly on a perusal of photographs -- that Palin's infant son, Trig, had been secretly delivered by Bristol. But it also sparked a new round of journalistic self-examination over whether such family matters should be pursued.
"All the conversations that used to go on privately in the back of a bar -- and all the rumors that used to get passed around -- now seem to find their way onto the blogs," says Todd Harris, a Republican strategist and former McCain spokesman. "It forces campaigns to push back immediately against even the craziest of rumors because the line is getting thinner between what remains solely on partisan blogs and what makes the leap to the mainstream press."
When the National Enquirer charged that former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards had fathered a "love child," in tabloid parlance, most mainstream media outlets refused to carry the allegation for eight months. That changed last month when Edwards acknowledged to ABC News that he'd had an extramarital affair with a former campaign aide, Rielle Hunter, but denied that he is the father of her 5-month-old daughter.
This time, Palin emerged as McCain's vice-presidential pick Friday, the pregnancy tale hit the Internet on Saturday, was trumpeted by the Drudge Report on Sunday and reached mainstream outlets just after noon Monday. Edwards had a former mistress in seclusion who insisted someone else was the father; the soon-to-be-obvious Palin story was within her own family.
Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein press center at Harvard University, says that, as in the Edwards case, the Palin pregnancy story "was untouched until the person involved made a statement. That legitimized it for the traditional media."
It is hardly unusual for a teenage girl to become pregnant, and unless she is Jamie Lynn Spears, who sold her baby pictures to OK! magazine, the news value is minimal. But some media commentators say Palin is fair game, not just because she is running for national office but because she is a self-described "hockey mom" who told the nation that her eldest son is headed to Iraq.
"Once she's brought her children in as selling points, unfortunately the bad comes in with the good," says Lisa Bloom, a Court TV anchor. "She's integrating her mom quality as a key part of her résumé. We didn't do that in the press; she did that."
Bloom says the Republican governor has been less than candid about what "had to be a disturbing family situation," but quickly adds that judging public figures by their children is tricky business. "All of us who are parents kind of cringe, if this makes her a less suitable candidate because the kid screwed up."
Some conservative bloggers were dismissive of the way the rumors spread. On Townhall.com, Amanda Carpenter wrote that the Daily Kos contributor was "disgustingly inspecting Bristol's midriff with all the fervor of L.A. paparazzi examining J-Lo's or Jennifer Aniston's washboard stomachs for evidence of a 'bump.' "
Glenn Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor who writes the conservative blog Instapundit, refused to link to the Kos posting. "I certainly wouldn't have gone with this," Reynolds says. "It just seemed so ridiculous. I don't see how this story adds up to a vindication of the Kos diarist."
But blogger Andrew Sullivan, a right-leaning former New Republic editor who supports Barack Obama, pushed the story about the baby, who was born with Down syndrome. Citing unresolved questions and the campaign's refusal to release the medical records involved, he writes: "The circumstantial evidence for weirdness around this pregnancy is so great that legitimate questions arise -- questions anyone with common sense would ask. . . . After all, this baby was a centerpiece of the public case for Palin made by the Republicans."
Karl Rove, the former Bush White House adviser, says the McCain camp had planned to publicize Bristol Palin's pregnancy all along. "They have to. . . . By election day she'll be seven months pregnant," Rove says. With Hurricane Gustav dominating the news, he adds, Monday "was a reasonably good day to do it."
The controversy erupted as a debate was taking shape over whether some media criticism of Palin's limited government experience has been sexist. Liberal radio host Ed Schultz was telling listeners Monday that Palin was an "empty pantsuit" who had set off a "bimbo alert." Shortly afterward, the pregnancy statement was released and, without missing a beat, Schultz said her daughter's situation was relevant because the governor is a champion of moral values.
But a liberal reader posting on Salon under the name Redstocking Grandma denounced the pregnancy allegations: "This is just creepy; it feels stalkerish." What some Democratic supporters were doing, she said, is "revolting."
While the Web can serve as an incubator for unsubstantiated charges, it also tends to be self-correcting. Another Daily Kos contributor late Sunday unearthed a photo from earlier this year in which the governor looks quite pregnant.
Moulitsas says he doesn't know who the anonymous ArcXIX is -- his contributors decide whether to identify themselves -- but that his site also disclosed that Palin was once a member of the Alaskan Independence Party, which has pushed for a vote on seceding from the United States. That was confirmed Monday by ABC News.
"Our people are doing the vetting. Even if some of it is hitting dead ends, other ones are striking direct hits," Moulitsas says. His role, he adds, "is to sit back and let the citizen journalists do their job, and I amplify the stuff that shakes out."