Palin and her Press

Hard questions, second guesses, and conflict up North

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.

In 2002, as she wrapped up her second term as mayor, Palin sought the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, a race she would lose by under 2,000 votes. Palin’s showing was strong enough to establish her as a rising star within the party, and she made Murkowski’s short list of Alaskans he was considering to fill his now empty Senate seat. Ultimately, Murkowski chose his daughter, Lisa, and appointed Palin the $125,000 a year chair of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

At the same time, Murkowski appointed Randy Ruderich, a former oil drilling executive and the chair of the Republican Party of Alaska, to the commission. Ruderich had long been a player in the oil industry, with close links to companies with business before the commission. In addition to the obvious conflict of interest concerns, it became clear that Ruderich was conducting party business on state time and with state resources.

State investigators began building a case against Ruderich, and Palin helped collect incriminating documents from Ruderich’s office and computer. As the investigation dragged on, and her position on the board restrained her from speaking about the inquiry, Palin resigned—in frustration, she said, and out of concern for her own reputation.

Here’s how the Anchorage Daily News’s Tom Kizzia described what happened next, in a profile that ran in October 2006, just weeks before Palin’s election as governor:

The press was clamoring about the affair. Palin began responding to feelers from local news media. She said later that her college degree in journalism helped her focus on the public process, and she saw that the media could play a role. Once the story finally unfolded in public, press accounts made Palin the hero.

One of those press accounts was a handsome 5,000 plus word article in the Daily News, framed as Palin’s first full reckoning of the scandal. It closed with an admiring quote from a Democratic state senator who interacted with her during the case: “Sarah has been tortured by this for a long time,” he began. “I feel she has never had a chance to let her story out.”

Ruderich admitted guilt and paid a fine, and Palin’s role in the case established something of a natural synergy between Palin and the press corps.

“It has been a very Republican state with a fairly weak and ineffectual Democratic party,” says the Daily News’s Dougherty. “So over time, the newspaper has functioned more as the watchdog and critic of the Republicans than the opposition party. So we’ve often been at odds with the powerful people in the party, and Palin came in opposed to the same people.”

When she relaunched her electoral career by entering the 2006 gubernatorial race, reform and transparency were her buzzwords.

She faced two opponents: former governor Knowles and a former Republican legislator named Andrew Halcro. Running as an independent, Halcro trained his sights on Sarah Palin throughout the campaign.

Halcro, who placed third with over 9 percent of the vote, now good-naturedly describes himself as a “recovering politician.” But in some ways, he never quite stopped running against Palin. His blog, which has become a widely-read clearinghouse for Alaskan political news and gossip, often criticizes the governor.

The blog is loose with sourcing. But it’s widely read, and clearly influential; the Daily News credited Halcro with being the first person to publicly link Palin’s firing of the state’s public safety commissioner to her family’s feud with her ex-brother in law, a state trooper.

“He functions not as a journalist, but sort of as a quasi-journalist,” says Dougherty, who describes Halcro’s writing as the “most antagonistic scrutiny” Palin receives anywhere.

To Halcro, it’s both a question of will and means. He says he sees no great appetite on the part of the state’s press, and especially from the Daily News, to cover Palin aggressively. But at the same time he recognizes that journalists are hard pressed in Alaska.

“When I think back to the gubernatorial race, the press was so light,” he says. “If you had one reporter at an event, great. If you had two, that was really great.”

There’s no question that Alaska’s dwindling press corps is stretched thin.

“We’re always up against just trying to get the job done,” says Lori Townsend, the host of the Alaska Public Radio Network’s Alaska News Nightly. “Everyone has suffered staff reductions, to the point when it’s just a luxury—and it is a luxury—to be able to respond with any depth… we’ve taken a hit in the national media, with people just saying we haven’t been doing our job here.”

The network has left a position that would usually cover Wasilla and its environs, which make up some of Alaska’s fastest growing towns, unfilled. Despite Alaska’s oil boom economy, the ADN—a battered McClatchy property—has gone, in the last thirty months, from a newsroom staff of 104 to 66.

Cutbacks like those are only exacerbated by the state’s vastness, and a string of major corruption stories that have drawn focus and attention away from Palin—while at the same time reinforcing her reformist message. But many of these cuts came after the 2006 campaign, when scrutiny of Palin would have been most helpful to readers.

“Here in Alaska, you’ve got a small and shallow media pool. And politicians, especially Palin, are treated with kid gloves,” says Halcro. “In the last four weeks, the state has gotten to know more about Sarah Palin then in the last twelve years… It’s almost become an embarrassment.”

One outlet that’s been criticized for being too close to Palin is KTUU, the NBC affiliate in Anchorage. Two former members of its on air staff now work for Palin—one on the McCain campaign, and one in the governor’s press office—a fact which has drawn complaints from viewers. Another staffer says he resigned after being reprimanded for a segment he produced that Todd Palin called to complain about. (The station’s news director did not respond to a request for comment, but in a recent appearance on Halcro’s program, defended his station’s Palin coverage and insisted the producer had not been reprimanded, and had given another explanation for his resignation at the time of his departure.)

“I think that the press corps has been easy on her,” says the former Palin administration official. “I think if you look at all the national stories, and compare it to her governor’s race or when she was governor, it’s been impossible not to notice. We didn’t hear about the librarian. We didn’t hear about the rape kits. We didn’t hear about the Wasilla earmarks. We didn’t hear about the land for the stadium deal. We didn’t hear about any of it.”

“I think those things are sort of interesting, but it doesn’t tell me much because it seems old and marginal,” says Dougherty when asked if his paper adequately focused on Palin’s time as mayor. “I think it’s sort of unfair to go back and say, they missed this, and they missed that, without the context,” he adds, of other stories—that might not have even been about Palin—that the paper was busy covering at the same time. He concedes that the paper “definitely” missed “a number of things.”

After handily defeating Murkowski in a primary, Palin never really had to break a sweat on the way to the election; no public polls ever showed her trailing. Before being picked by McCain, Palin enjoyed an astonishing 82 percent approval rating.

“There are no tough decisions, and the tough policy calls end up being divisive between people and the press,” says Persily, who has held many positions in journalism and state government.

“She generally had a good relationship with the Alaska press, which has been somewhat smitten with her personality and populist politics,” says Persily, who thinks that he and others abdicated duty “by not questioning statements as much as we should have—and I say ‘we’ because I was there.”

But Palin’s actions since she became McCain’s running mate, her administration’s inconsistent and opaque response to the Troopergate investigations, and some incidents surrounding information access have caused some reconsideration.

“Maybe it’s true that the press didn’t just hold her feet to the fire more,” says Townsend.

“Now, in retrospect, her apparent openness and willingness to cooperate and all of that, I now look back and ask if that was real or genuine,” says Dougherty. “I think it’s clear now that she’s yet to tell the truth about why she fired the public safety commissioner.”

“I’m not making any apologies for the work, which I think has been good. But are there stories we couldn’t do?” asks Dougherty. “Sure.”

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Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.