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!

10 Responses to "The Palin baby rumor and journalistic ethics"

  1. truthseeker
    truthseeker 9 years ago .Reply

    wow, this rumour is explosive. will somebody please get the facts here…because the facts presented with photos, the behavior of Sarah Palin in flying from Texas to remote Alaska to deliver are compelling. I would love to hear it debunked, but I am suspicious.

    And if it is true, who is the father?

  2. thib
    thib 9 years ago .Reply

    A customary 2 minute quick check on the net will bring you more than enough proofs that the governor is indeed the Mom.

    In my country a fine politician was destroyed by such shameless attacks, because she was the 1st woman prime minister. I hope that you manage to do better than that, but my hopes aren’t high now, when even the people that say to be “against” the salacious and shameless rumor can’t take 2 minute to do some fact checking before posting. Like on this blog.

  3. mary person
    mary person 9 years ago .Reply

    The original author of the DailyKos article remained anonymous – do you think it might just be a Rovian attempt to smear Democrats or “liberals” by pumping out this story, only to reel back with feigned horror when Sarah Palin ultimately proves she is the mother?
    That the Republicans would throw Bristol Palin temporarily into the role of unwed mother isn’t a stretch, if they thought they could get the outrage vote in the end.

  4. paul
    paul 9 years ago .Reply

    How do we know these “rumors” are from liberals??? Could easily be republicans upset about the choice of palin as VP. remember the “black baby” rumors came from the republicans.

    The real problem is they are acting guilty by removing all photos from the alaskan gov websites of the family. WHY?????

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  6. Where is the truth?
    Where is the truth? 9 years ago .Reply

    This is not rumor started by liberals, or Democrats, and certainly not Obama. The speculation has been bubbling up from the media in Alaska where Palin is very popular.

    If nothing else, it made Palin announce that her daughter Bristol is pregnant. It also makes people continue to question McCain’s judgement. Either Palin wasn’t fully vetted, or McCain did know about the pregnancy but wasn’t concerned — maybe because his own infidelity, attempts at cover up (Cindy’s drug stealing), and associations (Charles Keating) makes this seem so trivial.

    That Bristol IS pregnant now is a poor refelction on Palin, not as a parent, but as a social conservative who does not believe in birth control. “Abstinence only” is why there are so many teen pregnancies.

    Also, by admitting this pregnancy, it adds fuel to the rumor that Bristol may have been pregnant before. Whether or not she was, and whether or not the baby was Trig and there has been a cover up is hard to learn because information has been removed, blocked, or never provided. It is claimed that Trig is 4 months old, and Bristol is now 5 months pregnant. That’s a little too close to put the rumor to rest.

  7. Working Reporter
    Working Reporter 9 years ago .Reply

    Are there any cases at all where the press — or bloggers, or everyday people — should hold silent until there is adequate evidence that a rumor is true or false? Or has the wisdom of the crowds risen to such heights that it can not only detect truth, but can be counted on to dismiss falsehood entirely, without the stench of the lie clinging to the rumor’s target?

    I’m sure this will be dismissed as old-fashioned thinking, but rather than the mainstream press diluting its ethical checks, I’d love to see some bloggers enhance their own.

  8. Kathy
    Kathy 9 years ago .Reply

    There is no birth certificate avail. to put to rest a wealth of circumstantial evidence that is logical and supports the question, at least. If it’s all an odd coincidence, it would be so easy to dismiss the rumors by just posting a few hospital photos, mom with Trig, and a birth certificate. This has been expressed by bloggers for weeks. And the McCain camp has even acknowledged this request, but choose to ignore it with disdain. I believe the media is afraid and intimidated to pursue further.

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