The "sliming" of Palin: did FactCheck exaggerate?


At a moment when liberals and conservatives seem to have irreconcilable versions of reality--and the media deluge is so overwhelming that it's hard to separate spin from provides an absolutely vital service.

But I wonder: did FactCheck go too far in saying that Sarah Palin has been the victim of "sliming"?

Here's why I ask. The organization's report on Palin coverage, which was issued on September 8, convincingly establishes that Palin didn't cut funding for special-needs students, despite what CNN's Soledad O'Brien said; that she didn't endorse Pat Buchanan in 2000; that then-Mayor Palin didn't actually ban books from the Wasilla (AK) public library; and that, unlike her husband, she was never a member of the Alaskan Independence Party.

Having said that, FactCheck's report also seems, at times, to be overreaching in its defense of Palin.

For example: the title of the section dealing with Palin's stand on creationism in public-school curricula is unambiguous: "No creationism in schools." But this doesn't fit what comes next:

On Aug. 29, the Boston Globe reported that Palin was open to teaching creationism in public schools. That's true. She supports teaching creationism alongside evolution, though she has not actively pursued such a policy as governor.

In an Oct. 25, 2006, debate, when asked about teaching alternatives to evolution, Palin replied: "Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both...."

The section on Palin and the Wasilla library, meanwhile, is called "Not a book burner." That's a better hed; as FactCheck says, "Palin never asked that books be banned; no books were actually banned; and many of the books on the list that Palin supposedly wanted to censor weren't even in print at the time, proving that the list is a fabrication."

Still, FactCheck's detailed description of what happened in Wasilla also suggests that Palin may be an aspiring censor:

It’s true that Palin did raise the issue [of banning books] with Mary Ellen Emmons, Wasilla’s librarian, on at least two occasions, three in some versions. Emmons flatly stated her opposition each time. But, as the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman (Wasilla’s local paper) reported at the time, Palin asked general questions about what Emmons would say if Palin requested that a book be banned. According to Emmons, Palin "was asking me how I would deal with her saying a book can't be in the library." Emmons reported that Palin pressed the issue, asking whether Emmons' position would change if residents were picketing the library. Wasilla resident Anne Kilkenny, who was at the meeting, corroborates Emmons' story, telling the Chicago Tribune that "Sarah said to Mary Ellen, 'What would your response be if I asked you to remove some books from the collection?' "

Palin characterized the exchange differently, initially volunteering the episode as an example of discussions with city employees about following her administration's agenda. Palin described her questions to Emmons as “rhetorical,” noting that her questions "were asked in the context of professionalism regarding the library policy that is in place in our city." Actually, true rhetorical questions have implied answers (e.g., “Who do you think you are?”), so Palin probably meant to describe her questions as hypothetical or theoretical. We can't read minds, so it is impossible for us to know whether or not Palin may actually have wanted to ban books from the library or whether she simply wanted to know how her new employees would respond to an instruction from their boss. It is worth noting that, in an update, the Frontiersman points out that no book was ever banned from the library’s shelves.

Palin initially requested Emmons’ resignation, along with those of Wasilla’s other department heads, in October 1996. Palin described the requests as a loyalty test and allowed all of them (except one, whose department she was eliminating) to retain their positions. But in January 1997, Palin fired Emmons, along with the police chief. According to the Chicago Tribune, Palin did not list censorship as a reason for Emmons’ firing, but said she didn’t feel she had Emmons’ support. The decision caused “a stir” in the small town, according to a newspaper account at the time. According to a widely circulated e-mail from Kilkenny, “city residents rallied to the defense of the City Librarian and against Palin’s attempt at out-and-out censorship, so Palin backed down and withdrew her termination letter.”

As we’ve noted, Palin did not attempt to ban any library books. We don’t know if Emmons’ resistance to Palin’s questions about possible censorship had anything to do with Emmons’ firing. And we have no idea if the protests had any impact on Palin at all. There simply isn’t any evidence that we can find either way. Palin did re-hire Emmons the following day, saying that she now felt she had the librarian’s backing. Emmons continued to serve as librarian until August 1999, when the Chicago Tribune reports that she resigned....

It's also worth mentioning that FactCheck's original description of what did and didn't happen in Wasilla omitted some details, including (according to FactCheck deputy director Viveca Novak) the fact that Emmons' ouster prompted a "protest" and that Emmons was rehired the following day. 

To reiterate: both the press and the public should be grateful that exists. But since Palin's alleged mistreatent by Democrats and the media is a Republican talking point du jour, FactCheck's statement that she was "slimed" is itself intensely political. And--like some of the criticism that's been leveled at Palin herself--it seems to be a little hyperbolic.

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