Sunday, September 28, 2008

AP's Wasilla-gate Story Makes Mountains of Molehills

Intrepid reporters from the Associated Press have been turning over every rock and rowboat in Alaska, digging for dirt on Sarah Palin, and they've come home with several huge scoops. It turns out she was a college-hopper, attending six different schools in three different states before finally getting a degree, according to the results of one investigation. And now comes a second bombshell, suggesting that Palin may have acted unethically as mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, by getting special zoning dispensations and receiving a free facial, free flowers and a free salmon. She also may have had a conflict of interest in voting on matters pertaining to snowmobiles, since her husband, Todd, races them.

Woodward and Bernstein, eat your hearts out.

But read the story. The situations described therein seem less symptomatic of small town corruption than emblematic of small town informality -- something that may seem alien to AP reporters from the big city, but won't be to most Americans. The rigidity and regimentation of big city life in the lower 48 isn't the norm in such places. Rules are meant to bend with real-world circumstances. Familiarity and proximity instead serve as checks on bad behavior or abuses of power. Neighborly gestures, including the giving of gifts, aren't automatically construed as bribes or inducements. And, yes, someone in a position of power may get some minor perks as a result -- though this happens to elected officials at every level of government, and doesn't necessarily breed corruption.

A reasonable person -- which a Pulitzer-hunting reporter isn't -- will not read dark motives or machinations into the "revelations" presented in the story. Zoning variances are granted all the time -- as they should be, since most zoning laws are ridiculous and unjust. And a mayor is as entitled to get one as anyone else. As well, politicians from the federal level on down routinely vote on tax measures that potentially benefit them or their family members: Is the AP suggesting that all such votes are tainted by self-interest, or that all those who are taxed must recuse themselves from such votes? That, too, is silly.

The AP obviously is expending a lot of effort and money scouring Alaska for material damaging to Palin. But the results of this "investigation" seem a poor return on the investment, and it seems as though the news service is straining to produce stories by turning molehills into mountains. Some media scrutiny and scrubbing is to be expected for anyone on the presidential ticket. But is the news service an equal opportunity investigator? Have teams of AP reporters been dispatched to Chicago, to probe Barack Obama's past in Chicago machine politics? I doubt it. Has a reporting team been dispatched to Delaware, to see if Joe Biden ever got comped a crab cake? I'm guessing not.

The AP went moose hunting in Alaska but bagged a field mouse instead. What's really been exposed by its Wasilla-gate stories is the bias and silliness of its reporters and editors.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Amen, Brother! I'm so happy to be a retired journalist these days. Although it's not always the reporter's fault, but News Directors (in my field of TV) should be hung.