St. Paul, MN – As governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin enjoyed a relationship with the media that’s only possible in a sparsely populated state, far from the nation’s ravenous, political press corps.
But now under the intense media spotlight, seven weeks before Election Day, she is discovering that everything’s fair game for the Republican vice-presidential nominee—even her family.
On Monday, Palin announced that her 17-year-old daughter Bristol was pregnant, a move that helped squash Internet rumors of a soap opera-style cover-up, in which Palin’s four-month-old baby actually was said to belong to her daughter. Liberal blogs, like Daily Kos, help fuel the story, with major news outlets dispatching reporters to see if it was true.
Welcome to the media major leagues. That’s not to say Alaskan reporters weren’t doing there jobs before, but networks and top newspapers can allocate far more money for investigations, and are more likely to delve into personal matters. Palin will be followed constantly and relentlessly, with her words analyzed for the slightest hint of a gaffe.
Back in Juneau, things weren’t so antagonistic. It wouldn’t have been out-of-the-ordinary for Palin to answer a few questions after dropping her daughter off at the bus stop, or walk four flights down to the Capitol’s press room with homemade cookies. Reporters might run into Palin on the stairwell or jogging alone.
Relationships were like those in a small town, where the neighbors may know your dirty laundry, but the local paper would be unlikely to splash it on the front page.
“I heard that rumor a long time ago,” said Pat Forgey, political reporter for the Juneau Empire, a few hours after Palin’s statement that her daughter was five months pregnant. “I probably would not have wasted any time on it.”
Michael Plett, managing editor of the Juneau Empire, said that “for us, there really isn’t a story there.”
But try telling that to the political press gathered together in a relatively empty convention center Monday in St. Paul. With Gustav causing havoc in the Gulf, the story of an unwed teenage mother gave political reporters something to chase, a pursuit that included analyzing photographs to determine what constitutes a “baby bump.”
“I knew Bristol was pregnant in May,” said Andrew Halcro, a prominent blogger who ran against Palin in the 2006 gubernatorial race as an Independent. “So that rumor’s been out there, but it would have never come out.”
These days, as the national press descends on Alaska and follows Palin on the campaign trail, it should be assumed that anything and everything will eventually come out.
John McCain caught the media off guard by choosing Palin, forcing reporters to quickly cobble together quick biographical pieces, littered with quirky references to moose-hunting and hockey moms.
But tougher queries are on the horizon, especially when Palin does a press avail on the road or sits down for the first time on “Meet the Press” or “This Week.” The question remains: Will she be able to handle the heightened scrutiny with her charm and political instincts, or fold under the pressure?
Interviews with several Alaska journalists suggest she can be charming, friendly, and accessible—but only to the extent she chooses, often refusing to go off-message or allow time for more probing questions.
Bob Tkacz, a freelance reporter who’s covered the legislature and seafood industry since 1990, described Palin as willing to answer a couple questions while dropping her daughter, Piper, off at the bus stop, a stone’s throw from both the Governor’s Mansion and Capitol Building.
“She’s very accessible,” said Tkacz. “I’m not sure that’s the same as open.”
Tkacz described her style in news conference to that of a PTA meeting, adding that Palin keeps to the script at most times. Another reporter described her as often having staffers nearby during such conferences to field questions, too.
It’s a far cry from her running mate, who gained a favorable reputation with the national press during free-wheeling, anything goes, press conferences aboard the Straight Talk Express. (That said, the McCain campaign’s now cut them out in an effort to stay on message).
Dermot Cole, a columnist and editorial board member of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, said that Palin has met with the paper’s editors several times, but has generally avoided meetings that involve deep discussion of policy and issues.
“She is the most reluctant of all the governors we’ve had to participate,” said Cole, who’s spent three decades at the paper. Therefore, Cole added, “I think it’s unproven how she’s going to handle this intense scrutiny.”
“The media in Alaska has really treated her with an amazing amount of respect and kid gloves,” Halcro said.
In July, Halcro broke the story on his blog that’s now being dubbed “Troopergate.” Currently, Palin is under investigation for firing her former public safety commissioner after he refused to dismiss Palin’s former brother-in-law, a state trooper.
Halcro said that there is less investigation of Palin partly due to newspapers not having the resources in a massive state with miniscule population. While competing with her in the race for governor, Halcro said that at some candidate debates and forums—especially in far-flung communities—there was perhaps only one reporter or television crew on hand.
“I think all of the reporters in Alaska have been accused of being enamored of Sarah, or at least treating her deferentially,” Plett said. Even so, he said, Palin’s press office has been quick to respond to Juneau Empire articles that aren’t deemed positive.
Gregg Erickson, a columnist and reporter at the Anchorage Daily News and editor-at-large of the “Alaska Budget Report,” said that Palin can “charm your socks off.”
When Palin first took office, she approached both Erickson and his wife, Judith—the publisher of the “Alaska Oil and Legislative Report”—for the first time at a press conference, and already knew both their names. And once on a commercial flight, Erickson recalled, Palin came over to talk and ask his advice on issues.
Judith Erickson noted that Palin is a quick study, and it’s her personal appeal that could win over the press corps—even when the questions tread into areas she’s unlikely to be well-versed in.
In Alaska, Palin wouldn’t have been asked to locate Afghanistan on a map, but now will be expected to answer more nuanced foreign policy questions, as well as be prepared on domestic issues like the economy.
“She’s really good at the non-answer,” Judith Erickson said. “If you ask a question that she doesn’t want to answer, she just gives up a response that’s unresponsive. I have a feeling that she’ll do a lot of that.”