Trooper Star

The TrooperGate story isn't partisan. Let's stop treating it that way.

Late Monday afternoon, as the country reeled from the news of Wall Street’s implosion, a campaign-related announcement inserted itself into the news cycle. “Gov. Sarah Palin,” the AP informed the public, “is unlikely to speak with an independent counsel hired by Alaska lawmakers to review the firing of her public safety commissioner, a spokesman for Republican presidential candidate John McCain said Monday.”

Which is big news. It’s big news because the independent counsel Palin is “unlikely” to cooperate with was hired as part of an investigation that Palin herself initially ordered. It’s big news because it involves the central figure of the TrooperGate investigation—the governor of Alaska, who happens also to be running for Vice President—deciding that she is, in some sense, above the law. The TrooperGate story may be more complicated than that, sure. The extent to which it is remains to be seen. But, regardless, it’s a story.

You wouldn’t know that, though, from the coverage it was given yesterday. With a few exceptions, the she-won’t-talk development has gotten precious little attention in the mainstream press.

The media outlets paying most attention to the story are those generally considered to have an ideological bent. On both Countdown with Keith Olbermann and The Rachel Maddow Show Monday night, Palin’s decision was given lead-story treatment. Fox News’s Web site reprinted the AP story with the following headline: “McCain Camp: Palin Unlikely to Cooperate With ‘Tainted’ Probe.” The Washington Times did the same, with its own “taint”-focused headline: “Palin refuses to testify if probe is ‘tainted.’”

Which is indicative of the partisan veneer the TrooperGate story has assumed. Not just in its own plot twists and turns—the Alaska governor is claiming she won’t cooperate in the investigation because, as Palin spokesman Ed O’Callaghan told the AP, it is, yes, “tainted” by Democrats’ partisan involvement in it—but also in its overall treatment in the media.

Per such treatment, the TrooperGate story has become in many ways a hall of mirrors—mirrors that have become warped, Fun House-style, by the story’s partisan details and overtones. (Palin’s ethics investigation started as nonpartisan, but it became partisan along the way; or perhaps the Alaska GOP let the investigation go forward because they initially resented Palin, but once she became the party’s Veep nominee they changed their mind; et cetera.) And the resulting narrative implies that the story is primarily about politics and spin—rather than about, you know, facts. Take the following quote from the AP’s report on Monday’s TrooperGate development, which is symptomatic of the this-is-all-about-politics aura the TrooperGate story has adopted:

“The partisan presidential campaign of McCain/Palin has interfered and is picking partisan targets to smear in order to make this investigation look like something it isn’t,” said Patti Higgins, chairwoman of the Alaska Democratic Party. “Rather than cooperating with the investigation, the Republican presidential campaign is doing everything it can to stall and smear.”

And then, later:

Palin initially said she welcomed the inquiry. But after she became McCain’s running mate on Aug. 29 her lawyer sought to have the three-member state Personnel Board take over the investigation, alleging that public statements by the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democratic state Sen. Hollis French, indicated the probe was politically motivated.

It’s fair enough to report about the politics here. Of course. But it’s-all-about-politics as an overtone in the TrooperGate narrative can easily lead to an overtone of who-are-we-to-know-who’s-right:

The McCain campaign says it can prove Monegan was fired in July because of insubordination on budget issues, and not because he refused to fire a state trooper who went through a nasty divorce from Palin’s sister.

Monegan said Monday that Palin never complained to him about his performance.

Balance, yes—both sides of the story. But what are readers to take away? Very little. The whole TrooperGate story, narrative-wise, has become a kind of Rashomon meets Northern Exposure. Quirk, Mooses, and Competing Versions of Reality all around.

Except, of course, TrooperGate isn’t Rashomon. There aren’t competing realities here—Republican versus Democrat, Palin et al’s version of the truth versus Monegan et al’s version of it—there is only one reality, distinct and singular. And it’s the media’s job—to state the obvious—to uncover it.

There’s a fine line, to be sure, in reporting on investigations like TrooperGate; over-eager analysis can imply guilt when none is yet proven. But the pendulum shouldn’t be left to swing freely in the laissez faire direction. “Avoiding the ‘taint’ of partisanship in the story” can easily become a euphemism for “simply not doing one’s job.”

Take Greta Van Susteren’s interview with Central TrooperGate Figure Todd Palin on Monday night. Since Todd is the only Palin to have been subpoenaed in the TrooperGate case, and since fired Alaska public safety commissioner Walt Monegan has accused him of playing a large part in urging the firing of Palin’s ex-brother-in-law Mike Wooten, you’d think Van Susteren would have jumped at the chance to learn more about TrooperGate from Palin himself.

You’d think. Instead, as Liz pointed out, Van Susteren asked Palin, during her rare chance to talk to him on the record, about…the weather. Sheesh.

The TrooperGate story is still developing, and many of the biggest questions it poses and implies are yet to be answered. In any conclusive or satisfactory way, anyhow. But as the story plays out, it’s worth remembering that it’s not, in fact, fundamentally partisan, no matter how much both sides try to claim it as such—and the media shouldn’t allow the facts of the case to be hijacked by attempts to render it so. The press’s job in covering TrooperGate may be to parse through partisan rhetoric, sure, but it’s simpler than that, as well: it’s simply to find out what happened in the case. Nothing more than that—and certainly nothing less.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.