Over the last weeks, Sarah Palin’s brief public career—especially her time as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska—has been thoroughly examined by a legion of journalists, airdropped into the Last Frontier to look for signs that might indicate her vice presidential timber. The Washington Post, The New York Times, and others have produced troubling narratives of self-possession, intellectual incuriosity, and sharp elbows. And Palin’s extreme reluctance to engage the press has created an bitter atmosphere.
Intense scrutiny. Questioning narratives. Testy relationships.
That’s not how things went in Alaska.
“This isn’t even a 180 degree turn. This is a triple turn, double pike, dive off the platform. This is different,” says Larry Persily, who left the editorial board of the Anchorage Daily News to take a job with the state’s Washington office under Palin, of Palin’s newfound antagonism to the press.
Through most of, though not all of, Palin’s career, the Alaska press corps enjoyed a good working relationship with Palin. But now, as the national press has dug up or highlighted aspects of Palin’s career never fully aired by the state’s journalists, some Alaskan observers and journalists are asking if that access came at the cost of coverage that was adequately skeptical.
Palin, and her relationship with Alaskan journalists, must be understood in the context of the sea change she seemed to represent in the state’s politics. Palin defeated the incumbent governor, Frank Murkowski, in a lopsided 2006 Republican primary. Before being elected to that office in 2002, Murkowski had represented Alaska in the U.S. Senate for over twenty years.
“Murkowski comes back to Alaska, and all the sudden he’s got newspapers and television stations to deal with,” says Pat Dougherty, editor of the Daily News. And it didn’t go well. He tried to exclude troublesome journalists from regular press briefings. When he did take tough questions, he often interrupted reporters off mid-sentence with combative responses. As the alt-weekly Anchorage Press put it in 2005, “Frank Murkowski seems to be in an endless battle with reporters. That may be just the way he likes it.”
“He just didn’t have a good relationship with either his constituents or with members of the press,” says Paola Banchero, a journalism professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, and the president of the Alaska Press Club. Palin, she says, was a breath of fresh air. “I mean, she was Miss Congeniality.”
“One thing Sarah Palin does beautifully is that she disarms the press by being so friendly. She does not get into debates,” said a former Palin official, who requested anonymity under fear of repercussions from her administration. “Some of them were charmed.”
Palin earned high marks from Dougherty during one meeting with the paper’s editorial board after she became governor. (The paper had endorsed Tony Knowles, her Democratic opponent.) The governor arrived fifteen minutes early, and without a single aide or handler. “We weren’t even ready, and she came by herself,” he remembers. “It was really quite striking.”
Certainly, Palin’s relationship with the press hasn’t always been tea and roses. In 1993, she wrote a nasty letter to the Daily News decrying the state’s largest paper as a “dangerously biased … yellow, liberal rag.” And her early tenure as mayor of Wasilla was marked by persistent clashes with the Mat-Su Frontiersman, a thrice-weekly paper that covers the Matanuska-Susitna valley.
During Palin’s first six months as mayor, the Frontiersman reported as she fired or forced out most of the city’s senior employees, and tried to unlawfully appoint members to the city council. Palin did not appreciate the attentive coverage, or the criticism on the paper’s editorial page. At one point, Palin insisted that city employees decline interviews unless she gave her personal assent. (The directive only lasted about a month.)
“It was just a very contentious time. We were fighting it out all the time,” says Victoria Naegele, then the paper’s managing editor. Naegele remembers angry visits to the newsroom her husband Todd and one of Palin’s sisters. “Her attitude was that we were against Sarah Palin, not about reporting what she did.”
As the controversies faded, so did the prickliness. “I think the Frontiersman helped teach her some lessons, and it might have been painful for both of us,” says Naegele. One of these lessons was to avoid, rather than seek, conflict with the press. Another was that there were times when the press could be an ally.