Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor: Did a Spiral of Silence Shut Down the Story? By
By Bradford W. Scharlott, Ph.D. Northern Kentucky University Media Matters for America, a liberal online site that monitors press performance, has steadfastly maintained that the press has no business looking into the rumor that Sarah Palin faked the birth of her fifth child, Trig, in 2008 to cover for her daughter, Bristol – and it has repeatedly commended the U.S. press for doing the right thing by ignoring the rumor. Ten days after McCain named Palin as his running mate, Eric Boehlert wrote in MediaMatters: “We haven't seen the name of one reporter who pressured the McCain campaign about Palin's pregnancy.” The following January Boehlert wrote that while reporters heard the rumor of the fake birth immediately after Palin was nominated, in the 48 hours after the nomination the press “did not touch the story”; and after that the press only mentioned it in passing because the McCain campaign brought it up, revealing Bristol’s then-current pregnancy as a way to rebut the “smears.” And then last July Boehlert defended the U.S. press again after Palin on Facebook asserted that the press had pushed the fake pregnancy story. Palin, he wrote, had no grounds for complaint, “Because back in 2008, 99 percent of people in ‘the media’ did the right thing and ignored the Trig nonsense.”1 What Boehlert wrote about mainstream press performance in 2008 concerning Trig’s birth applies to the time since then, also. A database search of articles in more than 40 leading newspapers showed that the U.S. press has almost entirely treated the question of Trig’s maternity as a taboo subject. But it’s fair to ask if the U.S. press should have treated the fake pregnancy rumor as untouchable, both in 2008 and up to the present day. After all, if there seemed to be any real chance that the rumor was true, that might mean that a candidate for the vice presidency had staged a hoax
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor about the birth of a Down syndrome child and then used that birth to promote her political career. This article looks at what American journalists knew, and when they knew it, concerning the fake birth rumor – and it finds there was insufficient evidence for the press to conclude that Palin was telling the truth about Trig. The article then looks at what factors may have caused the press to give Palin more deference than she was due, and how journalists might have reacted differently. Finally, the article considers how the spiral of silence theory casts light on press performance relative to the Trig hoax rumor and, relatedly, the Obama fake birth-certificate rumor. Palin and the Fake Birth Rumor in 2008 Sarah Palin and her husband Todd attended a meeting of the Republican Governors Association in Texas in April of 2008, but rather than stay through the end, they left after Sarah gave the keynote speech around 1 p.m., April 17, and caught a flight to Anchorage, which had a layover in Seattle. The total travel time for the two legs of the flight plus layover plus car ride from the Anchorage airport to Palmer was more than 10 hours.2 The next day, a crew from KTUU-TV showed up at the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center in Palmer, close to the Palins’ home in Wasilla, after receiving a tip that Palin had given birth. The crew taped Chuck and Sallie Heath, Palin’s parents, in a hallway holding an infant that Chuck said was their new grandchild, Trig. No other media were present. Sarah Palin did not appear. The baby apparently arrived a month earlier than Palin had said it was due.3 On that same day, Palin’s office sent out a press release saying: Governor Sarah Palin and her husband Todd welcomed the arrival of their fifth child this morning. The Palins were thankful that the Governor’s labor began yesterday while she was in Texas at the Governor's Energy Conference where she gave the keynote luncheon address, but let up enough for her to travel on Alaska Airlines back to Alaska in time to deliver her second son. …4
The press release did not mention where the birth took place. The Mat-Su hospital did not list Trig Palin among the babies born that day, nor apparently has any official of the hospital ever publicly said a word about the birth of the baby.5 However, a story that appeared in the Anchorage Daily News four days later, which presumably relied on Palin’s account, said Sarah and Todd
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor “landed in Anchorage around 10:30 p.m. Thursday and an hour later were at the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center in Wasilla. [Cathy] Baldwin-Johnson [Palin’s personal physician] said she had to induce labor, and the baby didn't come until 6:30 a.m. Friday.”6 It should be noted that soon after Palin gave her speech in Texas, Todd e-mailed three of Palin’s aides, saying her speech “kicked ass” but remarkably said nothing about the pregnancy or the hastily arranged return trip, and that airline personnel said they did not notice that Palin was pregnant on her flight back.7 Palin returned to work three days after the purported birth and held a press conference. A reporter there asked if her water broke in Texas. When Palin balked at the question, the reporter said Chuck Heath, Palin’s father, had said that, and then Palin seemed uncertain how to answer: “So that was again, if, if I must get personal, technical about this at the same time, um, it was one, uh, it was a sign that I knew, um, could lead to, uh, labor being, uh, kind of kicked in there, was any kind of, um, amniotic leaking, amniotic fluid leaking, so when, when that happened we decided let’s call her [“her” being Dr. Baldwin-Johnson, Palin’s physician].” 8 Palin thus seemingly confirmed that her water broke in Texas, although her answer was sufficiently muddled that one might argue otherwise. In any event, KTUU reported that Palin’s water indeed broke in Texas, and if that is true, then it’s also true that she waited some 20 hours before going to a medical facility. Palin later recounted in her book “Going Rogue” how at 4 a.m., “a strange sensation low in my belly woke me ” (neither confirming nor rebutting the broken-water idea), and how she, over the course of the next 24-plus hours, gave a speech at the conference, then returned to Alaska and finally gave birth at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center to a premature baby that she already knew had Down syndrome.9 The Mat-Su medical facility, it should be noted, lacks a prenatal intensive-care unit, which would make it a less-than-ideal choice for the delivery of a premature baby with complications. Also, the Palins passed several hospitals in Texas and Anchorage equipped with prenatal ICUs in
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor their trip to Palmer. (In 2005, Palin was a board member of Valley Hospital Association, which runs the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center.)10 After McCain named Palin as his running mate on August 28, at least a few posters at Internet sites almost immediately began saying that Bristol, Palin’s 17-year-old daughter, was really Trig’s mother. The post that made the biggest splash appeared at the popular left-leaning Daily Kos blog site, where “ArcXIX” wrote on August 28: “Well, Sarah, I'm calling you a liar. And not even a good one. Trig Paxson Van Palin is not your son. He is your grandson.”11 In that post, the author quoted an Anchorage Daily News article written by Wesley Loy on March 6: JUNEAU -- Gov. Sarah Palin shocked and awed just about everybody around the Capitol on Wednesday when she announced she's expecting her fifth child. … Palin said she's already about seven months along, with the baby due to arrive in midMay. That the pregnancy is so advanced astonished all who heard the news. The governor … simply doesn't look pregnant. [Italics added.] Even close members of her staff said they only learned this week their boss was expecting. …
(Interestingly, Palin had announced she was pregnant the day after McCain clinched the Republican nomination. Palin had already been mentioned as a potential choice for the VP slot on the ticket.)12 As noted, the mainstream press essentially ignored the allegation that Sarah Palin was not Trig’s mother. An exception was the largest paper in her home state, the Anchorage Daily News. On August 31, reporter Kyle Hopkins, in a story with the headline “Rumor Patrol – Baby Drama,” wrote: OK - the Palin baby speculation is inescapable at this point. The left-leaning Daily Kos posted an item Friday called "Palin's fake ‘pregnancy’? Covering for teen daughter?" It's a version of a rumor - long simmering in Alaska -- that Palin's daughter Bristol was pregnant and the governor somehow covered it up by pretending to have the baby (Trig) herself.
Hopkins thus made clear that many Alaskans already had heard the fake birth rumor. And the next line of his story quoted a poster at the liberal Huffington Post as saying, "Guys, it’s a loser. Can we not do this?" – the point being whether the rumor was true or not, Democrats would
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor probably hurt themselves by pursuing it. Apparently, ArcXIX reached the same conclusion. In an August 31 update to the original story, she (or he) wrote that despite the strong circumstantial evidence that Palin faked the birth, an Juneau-based newsman, Gregg Erickson, had written to her that, “The press did a pretty good job of following up on the substitute child rumor. It proved baseless.” Therefore, she wrote: “I think it's fair to say that if he says the rumors were investigated and debunked, that should be that. …” – an about-face that seemed more tactical than heartfelt. (I later contacted Erickson myself to ask if the press had truly debunked the rumor. He did not directly answer that question but suggested I contact reporter Wesley Loy, who had investigated the matter; I tried to but got no response.) Even though the mainstream press in the lower 48 ignored the birth-hoax rumor, the McCain campaign felt a need to respond. Therefore the campaign chose to reveal on September 1 that Bristol was pregnant, alleging that she was in her fifth month – and thus, the logic went, she could not be the mother of Trig, who was allegedly born on April 18.13 A couple of things should be pointed out about the campaign’s strategy for responding to the birth rumor: 1. It seemed strange and needless. A birth certificate would have settled the matter, as would a statement from the hospital or from the doctor who delivered the child. And if Bristol’s pregnancy had already remained a private matter for several months, why subject her to the embarrassment of having it revealed at the Republican National Convention in front of the national media? 2. The validity of the logic that Bristol could not have been Trig’s mother depended on two unsupported suppositions – first, that Bristol was indeed five months pregnant at the convention, and second, that Trig was in fact born on April 18. Concerning Trig’s date of birth, the Mat-Su hospital will not confirm whether Trig was born there, let alone when. (Blogger Andrew Sullivan called the hospital and was told there would be no comment regarding Trig Palin.)14 And no evidence was offered concerning Bristol’s stage of pregnancy. Thus, if Trig was born, say, in
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor January, and if Bristol was only four months pregnant at the convention, not five as alleged, then the logic of the argument that she could not be Trig’s mother falls apart. (Bristol’s whereabouts in the year before the Republican National Convention will not be addressed here. Suffice it to say that she was out of school and public view for long stretches of time, for reasons Palin has chosen not to share publicly.) Quite arguably, the oddness of the McCain campaign’s response to the fake birth rumors should have caused reporters, ostensibly skeptical by training and nature, to wonder if something was amiss. This is not to say the press should have referred to Trig as Palin’s “alleged” fifth child in 2008. One might assume that, even if Bristol had been the birth mother, Sarah Palin had effectively become the child’s mother. However, if journalists had serious questions about whether the fake birth rumor might be true – and they should have – then the press was under no obligation to accept unproven claims as established fact. But that is exactly what happened at many top-tier news organizations. On September 8, a highly flattering article titled “Fusing Politics and Motherhood in a New Way” in the New York Times said: “She traveled to Texas a month before her due date to give an important speech, delivering it even though her amniotic fluid was leaking.” Then, continued the article, after giving birth and returning to work, “with Trig in her arms, Ms. Palin has risen higher than ever.” Palin had declined to be interviewed for the story, so the reporters (there were three) must have gotten the leaking-fluid tale from a published news story. They portrayed in a favorable light the improbable notion that she gave a speech several hours after her water broke, as if that were evidence of her toughness and grit. The Washington Post, on September 7, 2008, in a flattering piece titled “Palin’s Family Has Always Held a Place in Her Politics,” wrote: “The April birth of Trig, Norse for ‘brave victory,’ turned out to be a powerful credential for the national Republican base, delighted that Palin delivered a child who tests foretold had Down syndrome.” And the Philadelphia Enquirer, on October 22, 2008, in an article titled “It’s Supermom! Or
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor Is It?” wrote, “Palin's decision to chase the vice presidency even as she gave birth to a son with Down syndrome seems naive …” – the article’s point being it may be unrealistic for any woman to try to be a great mother and a great politician simultaneously but giving Palin credit for trying. The idea that Palin knew in advance that she was carrying a Down syndrome baby and chose to give birth rather than abort, which stories like those above amplified, helped launch her into the stratosphere of popularity with the right-to-life wing of the Republican party. And Palin seemed fully cognizant of how powerful a symbol Trig was, because she took him with her throughout the campaign and almost invariably displayed him on stage with her. During the campaign, Palin had promised the press that she would release her medical records. The evening of November 3, the day before voting began, the McCain campaign released a page-and-a-half-long letter signed by Dr. Cathy Baldwin-Johnson regarding Palin’s health. A section on Trig’s birth read: … She followed the normal and recommended schedule for prenatal care, including followup perinatology evaluations to ensure there was no significant congenital heart disease or other condition of the baby that would preclude delivery at her home community hospital. This child, Trig, was born at 35 weeks in good health. …15
Four things stand out about this statement: 1. While suggesting that the birth might have taken place at Mat-Su Regional Medical Center (Palin’s “home community hospital”), by using a tortuous circumlocution the doctor manages to avoid saying exactly where, or when, the baby was born. 2. Palin had said in a press conference in April that Dr. Baldwin-Johnson had delivered Trig, and the doctor’s own comments to the press suggested the same (even though she is a family practitioner, not an obstetrician). But in the statement above the doctor uses the passive voice to describe the birth (“This child, Trig, was born …”), thus avoiding saying who delivered the baby; it’s not clear from the statement that the doctor was even present. 3. Nothing in the doctor’s account of Palin’s pre-delivery medical care suggests that the
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor doctor was personally involved or had first-hand knowledge; in other words, it’s possible that she was simply copying information from Palin’s file, which Palin could have related to her during an office visit. 4. The timing of the release of the statement ensured that reporters would have no chance to ask follow-up questions before Election Day; and afterwards, Palin and the doctor could decline to answer questions since Palin would no longer be a candidate. The doctor seemingly has refused to talk to the press since issuing the statement. This last-minute statement by Baldwin-Johnson did not prove that Sarah Palin is Trig’s biological mother. If anything, its roundabout wording and use of the passive voice raise the question as to whether its purpose was more to mislead than clarify. But if reporters for the mainstream press found anything dubious about this medical statement, they did not say so in print. Palin and the Fake Birth Rumor Since the 2008 Election After the election, press scrutiny of Palin understandably became less intense. The question of Trig’s maternity arguably was no longer an issue in which the press outside of Alaska should take much interest – although Andrew Sullivan of The Atlantic, who pursued the baby hoax vigorously early on, argued otherwise in his very popular political blog, The Dish, and he continued to raise the question for many months after the election. (Sullivan, in fact, began a running tally of what he calls The Odd Lies of Sarah Palin, which recently stood at 49.)16 And after she resigned as governor of Alaska on July 3, 2009, perhaps interest in the Trig maternity question in her home state declined as well. But a strong counter-argument to the idea that the fake birth story is now irrelevant is that Palin continues to say she may declare herself a candidate for the upcoming presidential election, and she is still popular enough to be a potent force in the election. So the question is important because, if Palin has lied about the pregnancy, it says a lot about her character, her fitness for the presidency, and maybe even her mental health. Because the stage of Bristol’s pregnancy during the Republican National Convention
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor mattered in rebutting the Trig hoax story, the date of Tripp’s arrival deserves attention. To cut to the chase on this pregnancy, People magazine, quoting a great-aunt in Seattle – who said she got the news in an email from Palin’s father, Chuck Heath – reported on its website that Bristol gave birth to Tripp on December 28, then later changed the date to December 27 for its print issue.17 The great-aunt’s report in People was the only contemporaneous account the press would receive about Tripp’s birth, and while that story said the baby was born in Palmer, no hospital was named. The Mat-Su Regional Medical Center is in Palmer, so the implication was that Tripp was born there. But the Associated Press called the Mat-Su medical center and was told there would be no comment regarding Tripp.18 The hospital of birth would not be identified in subsequent press reports, nor would pictures of the newborn appear in the media, and nobody outside the family saw the baby until seven weeks after his birth, as far as press reports reveal. Governor Palin’s office at first declined to comment on the birth – "This office will not be issuing any statements on [Bristol's baby]. We’re here to talk about state government and that matter falls outside of that," Bill McAllister, Palin’s director of communications, told People on December 29. But on January 2, two days after the magazine’s story appeared, Palin’s office issued a statement quoting Sarah Palin as saying, “We are over the moon with the arrival of this healthy, beautiful baby,” and commenting on Bristol and Levi’s prospects in raising the child. McAllister, in that press release, said this about the delay: “The governor’s office previously declined to comment to honor the family’s wishes that the event remain as private as possible. However, the high volume of press inquiries, along with some erroneous information that was published, prompted the governor to make a statement.”19 The press release did not mention a hospital or even city as the place of birth, which would have seemed like a significant oversight if the governor’s office had made the original birth announcement. But coming two days after the People magazine “announcement,” the press made no comment about it. It seems odd to read that Sarah Palin was concerned about Bristol and Levi’s privacy, since Palin choose to reveal Bristol’s pregnancy to the nation during the Republican National
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor Convention. One might have expected her to trumpet the birth immediately, because a December birth was “proof” (in the logic of the McCain campaign) that Bristol could not be the mother of Trig. One might think that Palin, a master of publicity, would have seen the advantage of getting some newborn pictures of Tripp to the press right away, unless perhaps the baby was not born on the date given, or had arrived prematurely, or maybe was not born to Bristol at all (as some extremely distrustful Palin-watchers outside the mainstream media suggested).20 Tripp was the second Palin baby born within a year for whose birth no hospital can definitely be identified and about whose birth there seems to be a surprising lack any verifiable information. In Tripp’s case, the oddness is striking of having a great-aunt living hundreds of miles away make the birth announcement to a celebrity-oriented magazine. (Why were the Alaska media bypassed?) But if journalists found these things strange, no mention of it appeared in the mainstream press. As noted, the poster ArcXIX at the Daily Kos said the press had “debunked” the fake birth story in 2008, although that conclusion seemed unwarranted. However, after the election, the Anchorage Daily News decided the time had come do just that – debunk the rumor. Executive editor Pat Dougherty assigned reporter Lisa Demer the task of putting the baby hoax story to rest by obtaining indisputable proof of the birth from Sarah Palin’s office or from her physician, Dr. Baldwin-Johnson. Demer hit a brick wall – no one would provide the evidence she sought. Furthermore, Palin fired off a furious e-mail to Doughterty, who posted the contents of her e-mail, along with his response, in his Editor’s Blog of January 12, 2009. Palin’s e-mail first complained about some coverage issues relating to Levi Johnston (her supposed soon-to-be son-in-law) and his mother, and then she wrote: “And is your paper really still pursuing the sensational lie that I am not Trig's mother? Is it true you have a reporter still bothering my state office, my very busy doctor (who's already set the record straight for you), and the school district, in pursuit of your ridiculous conspiracy. ...” Dougherty responded:
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor You may have been too busy with the campaign to notice, but the Daily News has, from the beginning, dismissed the conspiracy theories about Trig's birth as nonsense. … In fact, my integrity and the integrity of the newspaper have been repeatedly attacked in national forums for our complicity in the "coverup.”
He then assures Palin that he has always considered the conspiracy theories “nutty nonsense,” then asks rhetorically, Why has Lisa Demer been investigating Trig's birth? Because we have been amazed by the widespread and enduring quality of these rumors. I finally decided, after watching this go on unabated for months, to let a reporter try to do a story about the "conspiracy theory that would not die" and, possibly, report the facts of Trig's birth thoroughly enough to kill the nonsense once and for all.
Dougherty then notes that Demer had received no cooperation in getting any information from Palin’s side to quash the rumors, and that therefore the story was shelved. He concludes: Even the birth of your grandson may not dissuade the Trig conspiracy theorists from their beliefs. It strikes me that if there is never a clear, contemporaneous public record of what transpired with Trig's birth, that may actually ensure that the conspiracy theory never dies. Time will tell.
Dougherty wrote that Palin never responded to his e-mail.21 Why the Press Treated the Fake Birth Rumor as Taboo The way almost all U.S. journalists unquestioningly accepted Palin’s claims regarding Trig’s birth is puzzling. The McCain campaign’s odd response to the fake birth rumor should have been a giant red flag that something deceptive possibly had happened. After all, providing a birth certificate (for example) would have instantly settled the matter and made it unnecessary to throw Bristol under the bus, just to provide a complicated argument that supposedly proved Sarah was the mother. So what would a skeptical, truth-seeking press corps have done after the McCain campaign told the world that Bristol was pregnant to rebut the hoax rumor? For starters, the press would not have repeated as fact Palin’s incredible claims relating to the birth, such giving a speech several hours after her water broke. Beyond that, organizations with significant resources could have put reporters on the birth hoax story itself. As noted above, Boehlert of MediaMatters said ten days after Palin’s selection that he had heard of no reporters who had “pressured the McCain campaign
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor about Palin's pregnancy.” Why not? Isn’t that what reporters are supposed to do when facing facts that seem fishy? The McCain campaign never put Palin in an open press conference – something unprecedented for a vice presidential candidate in modern U.S. political history – so she was shielded from direct questions about the birth hoax. But journalists in editorials and columns could have raised questions about the hoax rumor – or more to the point, about Palin’s truthfulness and judgment in relation to the rumor – and then a failure by Palin and the McCain campaign to address those questions would have been noteworthy itself. And, likewise, why didn’t any journalists try to interview Dr. Baldwin-Johnson, Palin’s physician? (Or if they did and she refused, why wasn’t that noted?) A story in the Anchorage Daily News quoted her as essentially telling Palin there was no reason she could not fly back to Alaska after labor had commenced – whereas Andrew Sullivan wrote that leading obstetricians he interviewed characterized Palin’s behavior in allegedly doing so as “reckless beyond measure.”22 It seems several things about the circumstances of this particular hoax rumor caused reporters to suspend their normal reporting reflexes. Here are five possible factors: 1. The view that it was unbelievable such a hoax could happen, especially given that a far-fetched Obama birth hoax rumor had recently surfaced. Colin McMahon of the Chicago Tribune, on December 6, 2008, in a story headlined “Internet rumors about two births just won't die,” wrote one of the few stories that appeared in the U.S. press that dealt with the fake birth rumor. In this story, he equated people who believe the Trig hoax rumor to “birthers” who embrace the claim Obama was born outside the United States. Neither rumor made good sense, he suggested, because it would take “a lot of people telling a lot of lies … from state bureaucrats to medical staff to friends and family of Palin and Obama,” to pull off such a hoax. In other words, McMahon suggested, the odds against such a large-scale conspiracy working is a reason the Trig hoax almost certainly did not happened. But would a large-scale conspiracy
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor truly be needed? For example, as noted, Palin’s staff expressed surprise along with everyone else when Palin announced she was seven months pregnant. After that until she allegedly gave birth, she generally wore a coat, even when indoors, with a big flowing scarf in front. The N.Y. Times article cited above said Palin “began an elaborate game of fashion-assisted camouflage,” using scarves to hide her pregnancy, but they just as easily could have disguised a lack of pregnancy. Thus, contrary to what McMahon suggested, there need not have been a conspiracy involving Palin’s staff for a birth hoax to work. Or, to take a hypothetical, if on April 18, 2008, an infant had been surreptitiously brought into the Mat-Su Regional Medical Center and handed over to Chuck Heath to later show off to KTUU-TV in a hallway, no one at the hospital needed to be involved. As to what may or may not have happened to Sarah Palin at the Mat-Su medical center that day, federal law prevents the hospital from saying a word without Palin’s permission – but presumably (another hypothetical here), as governor and a former hospital board member, Palin could have obtained a room the night before and then demanded, and received, absolute privacy – and in that case, again, nobody employed by the hospital needed to be involved in any conspiracy. (Dr. Baldwin-Johnson does not work at the hospital.) About a year after that story ran, I contacted McMahon by email and asked him if he still believed that Palin was Trig’s mother. He said yes, and he cited Tripp’s birth the previous December as strong evidence that Palin had told the truth. Many journalists who have not closely examined the facts surrounding the birth hoax rumor probably view the matter the same way. 2. The likelihood that one might be ridiculed or attacked for even bringing up the fake birth rumor. Palin and her supporters have consistently suggested that raising the question of the birth hoax is outrageous or even the mark of a deranged conspiracy theorist. For example, conservative columnist Michelle Malkin wrote on December 5, 2008: “Did you know that Sarah Palin-haters are still trying to prove she didn’t give birth to her youngest son, Trig? These tinfoil hat-wearers are as obnoxious and unhinged as the 9/11 Truth cultists who insist that America engineered the jihadi
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor attacks on itself.” 23 Andrew Sullivan has been the object of many slings and arrows over Trig questions he has raised. Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, on September 24, 2008, in the only major newspaper column devoted to the birth hoax rumor, noted that the McCain campaign (clearly in an effort to embarrass Sullivan) had forwarded to the Post questions that Sullivan had privately sent to the campaign seeking proof that Trig was Palin’s son. A McCain spokesman told Kurtz that Sullivan’s e-mails showed “the insanity that this campaign has had to put up with." (The campaign did not respond to Sullivan.) To his credit, Kurtz asked why Palin’s hospital records had not been produced, as Sullivan had requested, and the spokesman said: “We believe that a candidate should be able to preserve some privacy in this process.” Kurtz went on to note harsh criticism Sullivan had received, such as Jonathan Last of The Weekly Standard calling Sullivan’s request for proof of Trig’s maternity “a disgrace for the magazine [The Atlantic] and everyone associated with it.” 24 3. The appearance of two photos after her nomination showing a very pregnant-looking Palin. Here are two photos that were made public when “erik09559” posted them to Flickr on August 31, 2008, two days after ArcXIX accused Palin of carrying out a hoax:25
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor
The two pictures were taken within minutes of each other (revealed by the photos’ metadata that appeared on Flickr) on April 13, 2008, five days before Palin’s alleged delivery of Trig. In the first photo, Palin is shown standing to the left of KTUU-TV newsman Bill McAllister, who coincidentally would become her director of communications in July. (The other person is KTUU-TV cameraman Dan Carpenter.) In the other picture Palin is being interviewed by KTVATV reporter Andrea Gusty. These pictures show Palin looking far more pregnant than any others. (Indeed, her appearance in these two pictures essentially contradicts what Palin and reporters had said earlier in the year, which was that she “did not get big” in her pregnancy with Trig.26) Researchers for FactCheck.org of the Annenberg School of Communication called Andrea Gusty to determine if the second photo was real. On September 16, 2008, they reported that Gusty said she was “surprised” the photo had made it onto the Internet, adding, “I was under the impression that nobody had it except for me.” Gusty went on to say that the photo had been taken while she interviewed Palin in April and had not been altered, and she added that she was sure Palin had given birth to Trig. The FactCheck report did not say who had taken the photo or who
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor â€œeric09559â€? is.27 That Flickr account disappeared around April 2009; the two photos of the very pregnant-looking Palin were apparently the only photos ever posted to the account.28 The appearance of the Gusty-interview picture on the internet killed speculation at various sites that Palin had faked the pregnancy and perhaps saved her place on the ticket.29 It should be noted that some other photos from the spring appeared to show a remarkably thin Palin. For example, here is a photo taken at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau on March 26, about three weeks before the alleged birth, and also posted on Flickr:
Now here is the same photo after I lightened it in Photoshop:
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor
Palin was at the museum to sign a bill, and photographs of the event showed that she left that heavy coat on throughout. But in an unguarded moment, when a woman asked to photograph the governor with her daughter, Palin allowed her coat to open. Palin appears to be wearing some sort of pad strapped around her midsection; her lower belly, where a fetus would normally reside, seems flat.30 Also, here is a photo of Palin on March 14, about a week after she announced she was seven months pregnant. (The photo appeared in the Anchorage Daily News.) 31
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor
Now here is the same photo after I lightened it and adjusted the contrast in Photoshop:
Even though Palin was wearing her scarf â€œdisguise,â€? the photograph shows a extremely flat
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor stomach. This Anchorage Daily News photo, whose authenticity is beyond dispute, shows a very un-pregnant-looking Palin. A trim woman simply can’t hide a fetus in her seventh month of pregnancy, and Palin in no way looks four and a half weeks away from giving birth to a 6 pound baby. To state the obvious, an un-pregnant woman can make herself appear pregnant; a very pregnant woman cannot make the physical mass of a fetus in her lower belly disappear. 4. The idea that, if true, the deception was an understandable, maybe even a commendable act on Palin’s part. At least a few journalists in a left-leaning online chat group call JournoList seemed sympathetic in late August 2008 to Palin’s dilemma if she truly had covered for Bristol’s pregnancy. One wrote: “Palin would not be a liar or hypocrite even if this [fake birth rumor] were true. Talmud instructs lies are sometimes permissible in difficult family circumstances. … This [alleged hoax] is obviously way out of bounds.” In the same vein, another poster wrote, “what I see – if Trig is indeed her grandchild – is a strong woman trying to protect her family.” 32 (Ezra Klein of the Washington Post ran JournoList, a private Google Groups forum, for about three years before shutting it down in mid-2010 after comments posted in the forum were leaked to the public. The leaked posts concerning Trig’s birth appeared in the forum from August 29 to September 1, 2008.)33 5. The idea that the birth hoax rumor involved children who might be hurt by revealing the truth. Another poster at JournoList wrote that if the birth hoax rumor were true and was exposed, “It might hurt Palin politically … It would certainly hurt the actual mother, and the child.” Therefore, he concluded, “it would be wrong to reveal the deception even if the evidence were in hand. … So this story desperately needs a good leaving-alone.” Some other posters agreed with this view. For all these reasons, and perhaps others, many journalists decided that pursuing the fake birth rumor was not a good thing to do. But I would point to the first principle listed in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics: Seek truth and report it. Of course, a balancing of values
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor often must take place, and the second principle is: Minimize harm.34 The item above, relating to the interests of the children involved (Bristol and Trig), deserves consideration. The public’s interest in knowing about the truthfulness of Palin should have trumped speculation by journalists as to what may have been in the children’s best interests. As one poster at JournoList pointed out, if Trig was Bristol’s child, journalists were in no position to know whether or not she had been forced to relinquished her parental rights in Trig. It is worth remembering that the executive editor of the Anchorage Daily News publicly confronted Palin in January 2009 with the fact that no “clear, contemporaneous public record” of the birth had surfaced; but the nation’s press (or at least those paying attention) chose to overlook this glaring lack of evidence. Nothing could be simpler for Palin than proving she is Trig’s mother, if she really is – yet she has failed to produce a birth certificate, any bona fide medical record, or any other real evidence. It is beyond the scope of this article to try to resolve the question of Trig’s parentage. The purpose here is to show that a diligent reporter could not conclude with certainty that Palin was telling the truth and thus should not have treated her incredible story as beyond scrutiny. With very few exceptions, members of the press in the United States have failed to show appropriate skepticism about Palin’s unproven claim that she is the birth mother of Trig, a claim she has used to turbo-charge her career. As Andrew Sullivan, who grew up in Britain but now lives in America, put it: “Maybe we have witnessed one of the biggest frauds in American political history and the biggest failures among the American media in a very, very long time.” 35 The Birth Hoax Rumor and the Spiral of Silence Theory Christopher Hitchens, a well-known British author, wrote the following in February 2010 in his Washington Notebook column for The Spectator, a British newspaper: “An astonishing number of well-informed people tell me that Sarah Palin is not in fact the mother of baby Trig, but that she is ‘covering up’ for another family member whose child he really is.” 36
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor If, for the sake of argument, we generalize from Hitchens’ observation and say that many well-informed Americans share that view, then the curious thing is that this view about a highly prominent political figure, which if true speaks volumes about her honesty and maybe even her mental health, is virtually a taboo subject in U.S. mass media. The sole prominent writer who has been willing to broach the subject of Trig’s maternity skeptically and repeatedly is the blogger Andrew Sullivan. I strongly suspect that, as Hitchens’ observation would imply, many among America’s welleducated citizens believe Palin has lied about Trig’s birth. After all, the main points I recount above are well known: that Palin claims (sort of) that her water broke and labor started in Texas but that she gave a speech, flew thousands of miles and finally more than 20 hours later went to a small regional hospital in Alaska ill-equipped for a premature birth (thus recklessly endangering the life of the baby by waiting so long); that instead of producing a birth certificate when confronted with rumors of faking the birth, she (needlessly, if she is the real mother) outed her daughter’s current pregnancy at the Republican Nation Convention; and that she has steadfastly refused to produce documentary proof she is the mother despite repeated requests from Andrew Sullivan and also a plea from the top editor of the Anchorage Daily News. While none of that proves she is not Trig’s mother, I would argue that those facts, plus a host of others recounted above, make it unlikely she truly is. By contrast, the rumor that Barack Obama was not born on American soil and thus is not eligible to be president is not a taboo subject at all in U.S. media. The rumor originated during his primary race against Hillary Clinton, and has been reported on frequently since then, even though authorities such as the U.S. Supreme Court and the state of Hawaii agree Obama has proved his citizenship.37 A search of the Newspaper Source database shows 121 newspaper articles since January of 2008 dealing with Obama’s birth certificate.38 The same database over the same period shows just three newspaper articles dealing with Palin’s alleged birth hoax. The alleged Obama and Palin hoaxes are not perfectly comparable, but they are roughly so.
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor As the current president, Barack Obama receives more media attention than any other politician in the United States. But since August 2008, Palin must surely be the second-most reported on politician in the country. Her book tours, reality show, provocative comments in social media, and role as a commentator on Fox have kept her in the limelight. So one could not say the lack of coverage of the Trig rumor derives from a lack of interest in Palin herself. What can explain the extraordinary difference in the coverage of the two alleged hoaxes? A key factor, perhaps, is that a “spiral of silence” may have kicked in with regard to Palin’s fake birth rumor but not Obama’s alleged fake birth certificate. A quick review of the spiral of silence theory: individuals who sense that their views are outside of what the mainstream of society considers acceptable will censor themselves, so as to not be subject to scorn or rejection by those in the mainstream. The more individuals who hold a minority view censor themselves, the more outside of the mainstream the minority view will seem – and hence there is a downward spiral of silence until the minority view is virtually extinguished, at least in mainstream mass media.39 It seems clear from Hitchens’ comment above that there are individuals who believe Palin has lied about Trig; indeed, since the fall of 2008, numerous blog sites devoted to exposing Palin’s alleged hoax have appeared. So why has mention of the Palin hoax rumor been practically exterminated in the mainstream U.S. press, while stories on the alleged Obama birth-certificate hoax have been plentiful? I would suggest four reasons for the disparity: 1. Conservative politicians have been willing to boost birther claims by proposing legislation relating to birth certificates, by favorably commenting on the credibility of birther claims, etc., thus generating press coverage. For example, earlier this year a legislator re-introduced the so-called “Birther Bill” in Arizona, which would require all presidential candidates in the state to submit an original birth certificate, a standard which the “certificate of live birth” from Hawaii that Obama shared with the press in 2008 would not meet.40
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor 2. Birthers have been aggressive in generating news, such as taking demands for Obama’s original birth certificate to court. The U.S. Supreme Court on March 7 rejected an appeal that likewise had been rejected by lower courts to consider a claim that Obama does not meet constitutional requirements for being president.41 Of course, this action generated news stories. Clearly, someone with deep pockets thinks the legal expense of such actions is justified, perhaps just for the news value since success in the courts is almost inconceivable. 3. Conservatives have made a concerted effort to marginalize people who bring up the Trig hoax rumor, thus trying to set off a spiral of silence. I noted above that Michelle Malkin said in a blog post that people who question whether Palin gave birth to Trig are “tinfoil hat-wearers” who must be “unhinged.” What prompted that post from her was a well-reasoned column by Andrew Sullivan the day before asking for proof relating to Trig’s birth. Did Malkin seriously believe Sullivan was unhinged? Of course not. (A brilliant writer, Sullivan has a doctorate from Harvard.) However, her post was meant to marginalize Sullivan in the eyes of others, and perhaps to let others know they would face similar slurs if they followed in Sullivan’s footsteps. 4. The idea that it is in the best interest of the Palin family to leave the alleged hoax alone. I documented above how liberal journalists at JournoList voiced this idea. It is interesting to speculate on what conservative journalists would have said if a Democratic vice presidential nominee had been in the same position. Figuring out what is or isn’t ultimately true is a precarious business. But I will offer my views here. It seems likely that 1) Sarah Palin staged a hoax concerning the birth of her son Trig; and 2) Barack Obama truly was born in the United States and meets all other constitutional requirements to be president. I recently had the students in my undergraduate classes complete a short survey. Here are four questions and their answers:
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor
As the tables show, 82.7 percent of the students have heard the rumor Obama was not born in the United States, and (combining the extremely and moderately likely figures) 22.8 percent believe the rumor is likely to be true. (Similarly, a recent CNN national poll found 25 percent of respondents thought Obama was likely born outside the United States.)42 By contrast, only 45.3 percent of the students had heard the Trig hoax rumor, and only about 17.4 percent thought it was likely to be true. In other words, the conservatives who have sought to make the spiral of silence work for them (whether they use that phrase or not), have done a remarkable job. A majority of college
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor students (if mine are typical) have not heard of the Trig hoax rumor, and less than a fifth believe it is true. Meantime, the “birthers” (who tend to be allied with the conservatives) have promoted the Obama hoax rumor to the point that more than four out of five students have heard of it, and more than a fifth think it is true (again, based on my sample). If events ultimately show that Palin did indeed perpetrate a hoax, and that Obama in fact meets all constitutional requirements to be president, then the results of my survey will have revealed a topsy-turvy world: a big lie about Palin will have been made to seem more likely true than a big truth about Obama – a testament to the power of clever media manipulation and perhaps also the efficacy of the spiral of silence phenomenon.
Postscript This paper is something of a hybrid. The part before the spiral of silence section is journalistic in nature. One cannot find mainstream media reports that try to make sense of the strange facts surrounding the birth of Trig. Therefore, I felt the need to lay out the facts in order to make the case that Palin may have staged a hoax. The section on the spiral of silence is my attempt to use an existing theory to explain the vacuum of information surrounding Trig’s birth. So, in a way, the theory propounded in the last part of the paper helps explain why the first part had to be journalistic – I felt the need to do something U.S. journalists, perhaps themselves caught up in a spiral of silence, have so far failed to do: take a sweeping look at the evidence surrounding the birth hoax rumor and try to make sense of it all. I might add that the spiral of silence phenomenon has certainly been evident in my personal life. I used to avoid telling people my views about the Trig hoax rumor because I have literally been subjected to comments like “Shouldn’t you be wearing a tin hat.” So this paper is an effort to stop the spiral.
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor
Eric Boehlert, “We wish The National Enquirer editor would stop lecturing journalists,” http://mediamatters.org/blog/200809110019 (Sept. 11, 2008); Boehlert, “Palin, the press, and her pregnancy,” http://mediamatters.org/columns/200901130015 (Jan. 13, 2009); “Boehlert, Palin's now scolding journalists who didn't write about Trig in 2008?” http://mediamatters.org/blog/201007270015 (July 27, 2010), all at Media Matters for America.com. 2
Sarah Palin, Going Rogue: An American Life (HarperCollins, 2009), 193-195; Lisa Demer, “Palins' child diagnosed with Down syndrome,” Anchorage Daily News (April 22, 2008). 3
Lori Tipton, “Welcome to Alaska, Trig Paxson Van Palin,” KTUU-TV, http://www.ktuu.com/community/ktuu-welcometoalaskatrigpaxso-8194634,0,5629481.story (April 18, 2008). The last line of this story is: “An unnamed source that is close to the family has said that the early testing revealed Trig Palin has Down Syndrome.” The “unnamed source” is probably the same person who tipped off KTUU to cover this – perhaps KTUU’s own Bill McAllister, who became Palin’s director of communications about three months later. 4
Governor Palin has new baby boy – Trig Paxon Van Palin, http://www.freerepublic.com/focus/fnews/2071657/post (April 18, 2008 ). 5
Andrew Sullivan, Births At Mat-Su Medical Center In April 2008, The Atlantic http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/10/births-at-mat-s.html (Oct. 8, 2008). 6
Lisa Demer, “Palins' child diagnosed with Down syndrome,” Anchorage Daily News, http://www.adn.com/2008/04/22/382864/palins-child-diagnosed-with-down.html (April 22, 2008). 7
MSNBC Palin Mail Collection, http://crivellawest.net/palin/pdf/1085.pdf (April 17, 2008); the email is shown also in the YouTube video “The Perfidy of Sarah Palin; Chapter 2. The Wild Ride,” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZSVMzeR5jU. On airline personnel not noticing the pregnancy, see Lisa Demer, “Palins' child diagnosed with Down syndrome,” Anchorage Daily News, April 18, 2008. 8
Audio of the press conference http://tindeck.com/listen/zcnk (April 21, 2008).
Sarah Palin, Going Rogue: An American Life (HarperCollins, 2009), 193-195.
See http://www.matsuregional.com/Services/Pages/Maternity%20Services.aspx, which does not show prenatal ICU as among the maternity services of the hospital. On Palin being a board member, see “Palin vs. Obama: Line by Line Resume Comparison,” http://rootswire.org/conventionblog/palin-vs-obama-line-lineresume-comparison. 11
That post is no longer available, but I saved it. Contact me for a pdf.
SJ Reidhead, “Could Alaska’s ‘Hottie’ Governor Be the GOP’s VP Nominee in 2008?” http://blogcritics.org/politics/article/could-alaskas-hottie-governor-be-the/#ixzz1IJO3QSvt (Aug. 17, 2007). 12
Samuel Goldsmith and Clemente Lisi, “PALIN ADMITS HER 17-YEAR-OLD DAUGHTER IS PREGNANT,” New York Post (Sept. 1,2008), http://www.nypost.com/p/news/national/item_kPSGUCH6gEOaMsnWNrqGQJ#ixzz1IJQZSS00. 13
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor
Andrew Sullivan, “Births At Mat-Su Medical Center In April 2008,” The Atlantic http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/10/births-at-mat-s.html (Oct. 8, 2008). 15
Andrew Malcolm, “Sarah Palin's physician says she's in 'excellent health',” L.A. Times, http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/washington/2008/11/polling-places.html (Nov. 3, 2008). 16
Andrew Sullivan, “The Odd Lies of Sarah Palin XLIX: Willow's Smacktalk On Facebook, The Atlantic, http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2010/11/the-odd-lies-of-sarah-palin-xlvix-willowssmacktalk-on-facebook.html (Nov. 26, 2010). See also Sullivan, “Why Palin Still Matters,” http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/11/why-palin-still.html (Nov. 12, 2008). Lorenzo Benet, “Bristol Palin Welcomes a Son,” People, http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20245389,00.html (Dec. 29, 2008). 17
Associated Press, “Palin's daughter gives birth to son named Tripp,” Houston Chronicle, http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/ap/nation/6186555.html (Dec. 30, 2008). 18
Steven Ertelt, “Sarah Palin Speaks Out on the Birth of Her Grandson Tripp, Teen Pregnancy,” Lifenew.com, http://www.lifenews.com/2009/01/01/state-3730/ (Jan. 1, 2009). 19
Blade, “Did Bristol Palin Fake The Tripp Pregnancy?” Sarah’s Scandals, http://shesnohockeymom.blogspot.com/2010/07/did-bristol-palin-fake-tripp-pregnancy.html (July 24, 2010). My own guess is that Tripp arrived prematurely. Recall that Dr. Baldwin-Johnson said labor was induced in Trig’s case. Could the same thing have happened in Tripp’s case? 21
Pat Dougherty, “Full text of the Palin-ADN email exchange,” Anchorage Daily News, http://community.adn.com/adn/node/136523 (Jan. 12, 2009). 22
Lisa Demer, “Palins' child diagnosed with Down syndrome,” Anchorage Daily News, http://www.adn.com/2008/04/22/382864/palins-child-diagnosed-with-down.html (April 22, 2008); Andrew Sullivan, “A Fourth Picture,” The Atlantic, http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/12/afourth-pictur.html (Dec. 5, 2008) 23
Michelle Malkin, “Truthers to the left of me, truthers to the right,” MichelleMalkin.com, http://michellemalkin.com/2008/12/05/truthers-to-the-left-of-me-truthers-to-the-right/ (Dec. 5, 2008) 24
Howard Hurtz, “Baby Talk,” Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2008/09/24/AR2008092400797.html (Sept. 24, 2008). 25
Audrey, “Last day of legislative session- April 13, 2008,” PalinDeception.com, http://www.palindeception.com/calendar/days/041308.html. The photos are shown and described here. 26
Lisa Demer, “Palins' child diagnosed with Down syndrome,” Anchorage Daily News, http://www.adn.com/2008/04/22/382864/palins-child-diagnosed-with-down.html (April 22, 2008). Demers writes, “Palin never got big with this pregnancy,” which I believe was her way of signaling skepticism about the pregnancy. Recall that her fellow reporter Wesley Loy wrote that Palin “simply doesn’t look pregnant.” 27
Emi Kolawole and Jess Henig, “Muting the Mommy Melodrama,” FactCheck.com, http://www.factcheck.org/2008/09/muting-the-mommy-melodrama/ (Sept. 16, 2008).
Running head: Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor
Audrey, “Last day of legislative session- April 13, 2008,” PalinDeception.com, http://www.palindeception.com/calendar/days/041308.html. 29
Red Pen, “Sarah Palin Baby Story Ender,” The Daily Kos [no longer available] (August 31, 2008).
Audrey, “The Nail in the Coffin,” http://www.palindeception.com/blog/2008/12/nail-in-coffin.html (Dec. 2, 2008); see also “Alaska State Museum Bill Signing- March 26, 2008,” http://www.palindeception.com/calendar/days/032608.html. 31
Audrey, “More on Last Night's Photo; PDF Questions,” PalinDeception.com, http://www.palindeception.com/blog/2008_12_01_archive.html (Dec. 11, 2008). 32
“Raw Journolist emails on ‘Palin’s Downs [sic] child,” The Daily Caller, http://dailycaller.com/2010/07/26/raw-journolist-emails-on-palins-downs-child/ (July 27, 2010). 33
“JournoList,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JournoList.
“SPJ code of Ethics,” Society of Professional Journalists, http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp.
Andrew Sullivan, “A Fourth Picture,” The Atlantic, http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2008/12/a-fourth-pictur.html (Dec. 5, 2008). 35
Christopher Hitchens, “writing from Washington [...],” Daily Mail, Feb. 4, 2010 p. 19.
“Barack Obama citizenship conspiracy theories,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barack_Obama_citizenship_conspiracy_theories. 38
That database contains complete coverage from more the 40 newspaper, mostly in the United States, plus selective coverage from over 380 smaller newspapers. 39
“Spiral of Silence,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiral_of_silence.
Michael Sheridan, “'Birther Bill' back in Arizona; Rep. Judy Burges pitches birth certificate legislation again,” NY Daily News (Jan. 26, 2011). 41
Bill Mears, “High court turns aside another lawsuit questioning Obama citizenship,” CNN, http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2011/03/07/supreme-court-rejects-appeal-from-birther-advocate/ (March 7, 2011). 42
Alexander Mooney, “Trump aide says release of unofficial birth certificate an 'oversight',” CNN, http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2011/03/29/trump-aide-says-release-of-unofficial-birth-certificate-anoversight/ (March 29, 2011).0
See http://www.thenortherner.com/?p=9562 for details