The 13,000 Sarah Palin e-mails released Friday provided little new insight about her time as Alaska’s governor. But the frantic effort to obtain the messages, dissect them and post them online served as a watershed moment for the news media, whose zealous approach will no doubt be replicated on future stories.
The spectacle on Friday was unusual even for Palin, who is known for her ability to inspire a media frenzy. Eager to be the first to post the messages online, news outlets — including The Post — dispatched reporters armed with scanners to Juneau for the 9 a.m. release of the e-mails, which were not distributed electronically but in stacks of printed paper.
Back in their newsrooms, the outlets competed to get the documents online for the public first and to capture the coveted top spot on Google. Reporters tweeted every new revelation, from 7-year-old Piper Palin’s anxiety that her mother was leaving for another trip, to the governor’s outraged notes over the scandal known as “Troopergate.” And they “crowdsourced” the documents by inviting readers to assist in scouring the e-mails.
The enormous effort drew criticism from some quarters, particularly Palin’s backers. Though Palin remains a very public figure, she is not in elective office and has said she has not decided if she will seek the Republican nomination for president next year.
Fox News host Greta van Susteren suggested that Palin was getting a “media colonoscopy” that did not match efforts to scrutinize other public figures or stories of greater importance. “Press hunts Mama Grizzly” was the headline on the Drudge Report on Saturday.
Even some liberal journalists pondered the public-interest value of the exercise as early as Friday morning.
“Don’t get me wrong. There’s always some nominal value in paging through the communiques of a public figure, and Palin — who’s been as public a figure as any — is a good candidate for this attention,” wrote Jason Linkins, a media reporter for the Huffington Post, before the e-mails had been released. “But it’s really not hard to think that the joke might somehow be on us.”
Still, the massive deployments hint at the way journalists will tackle large stories in the future. And some of those stories will no doubt be more consequential than the mundane internal conversations of a former politician who may or may not run for public office again one day, let alone the presidency.
The crowdsourcing was significant because news organizations have really only used that approach on about a dozen significant stories, said Jay Rosen, a New York University professor who has advocated for more collaboration between professional and citizen journalists.
The first significant use was in 2007, when the liberal news site Talking Points Memo asked for help sifting through documents relating to the firing of U.S. attorneys under the Bush administration, Rosen said. It could be used again as the health-care overhaul phases in, perhaps by issuing a query asking readers to chime in with how their health care has changed, he said.
There was a bit of “overkill” in that at least four large news organizations were crowdsourcing the Palin e-mails Friday, Rosen said. But “I think it’s a positive that big national news organizations were engaging their users in reporting experiments. They may learn from trying to do it and find it easier to do the next time.”