The Palin baby rumor and journalistic ethics

By Steve Outing

So there’s this rumor starting to spread around the net: That GOP VP candidate Sarah Palin is not the mother of the infant Trig Palin as she claims; rather, the mother is actually her 17-year-old daughter, Bristol. It surfaced with this report on Daily Kos. (And there’s a follow-up with more “evidence.”)

Andrew Sullivan has blogged about it, and rightly, to my mind, suggests:

“There must be plenty of medical records and obstetricians and medical eye-witnesses prepared to testify to Sarah Palin’s giving birth to Trig. There must be a record of Bristol’s high school attendance for the past year. And surely, surely, the McCain camp did due diligence on this. But the noise around this story is now deafening, and the weirdness of the chronology sufficient to rise to the level of good faith questions. So please give us these answers — and provide medical records for Sarah Palin’s pregnancy — and put this to rest.”

As I write this, the mainstream media is staying away from this one (according to a quick Google News search). It is, after all, an outrageous charge. And it maligns a 17-year-old girl who deserves to be treated fairly and not dragged through the mud.

What should mainstream news organizations do with this? I think they have a responsibility to investigate it and discover the truth, and report it, whichever way this turns out. (If Palin were lying about this, it should disqualify her from holding the VP’s office, at least to my mind.)

This is seeming like it could turn out to be similar to the John Edwards affair case, where the National Enquirer was the media outlet correctly reporting that the presidential candidate indeed was having an affair. Some traditional news organizations chased the story, but couldn’t confirm it. It’s probably fair to say that most “real journalists” believed that the Enquirer was making it up. They ended up getting beat by a cheesy supermarket tabloid.

Now we have a left-leaning blog publishing an explosive story that most people probably don’t believe, because it sounds so absurd (and the author is hiding his name, which is an enormous red flag). But the mainstream press needs to make sure it doesn’t get caught again as with the Edwards affair.

Dan Kennedy, a journalism professor who writes a blog called Media Nation, thinks that while it may be worthwhile for the mainstream press to investigate and (most likely) debunk the rumor, if it indeed turns out to be false, it shouldn’t be published. He writes:

“The job of the press is to ask questions and then to present its findings to the public — or, in this case, if it found nothing, to do its best to make sure the story never saw the light of day. … This is the definition of a story that shouldn’t be hashed out publicly.”

Sorry, Dan, I totally disagree. Long gone are the days when “the press” had the power to keep stuff like this under wraps, taking a Father Knows Best approach and not sharing the “sordid” details with the public. This thing is already spreading like wildfire, without being mentioned by mainstream news organizations. It’s going to play out with or without the mainstream press taking part.

This is a strong rumor that’s already got legs. News organizations need to investigate, and if they can confirm that it’s false, they should report it. It doesn’t have to be a big deal or take up a 24-hour news cycle. A simple short story — Palin baby rumor has been debunked — would suffice.

It’s archaic media thinking that says the media needs to stifle this thing because it’s too unseemly for us to touch. We no longer live in the age when rumors were heard only by journalists, and those journalists decided whether to pass them along to the public. The public is in on this rumor, and they deserve to be served by professional journalists who are capable of debunking or confirming it.

One last point: I’ve seen arguments that the media must sit on this because it would hurt Bristol, who’s still a kid. The problem is, she’s already been tossed in the mud, and millions of people are finding out about this rumor this weekend. That cat’s out of the bag. Mainstream media would serve her interests best by turning up evidence that the DailyKos charges are false. And if the rumor is true, the American public certainly needs to know about Sarah Palin’s character.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!