By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Andrew Sullivan goes there

It was only a matter of time before a wild rumor about the Palin family broke into the mainstream. Now the line has been crossed by Andrew Sullivan, who blogs about it at the The rumor: Sarah Palin is not the mother of young Trig Palin. The mother is actually her 16-year-old daughter, Bristol.

I strongly believe Sullivan should have laid off this. I could have linked to it yesterday, but didn’t, since at that point it was only fodder for a pseudonymous diarist at the Daily Kos. This is the sort of hurtful story that reputable news organizations should check out thoroughly before injecting into the debate. I mean, come on. Does anyone think Josh Marshall hasn’t been following this? Or dozens of other liberal political blogs and Web sites, including Media Nation? None of us went there, and Sullivan shouldn’t have, either.

Interestingly, the Huffington Post beat Sullivan with a double-reverse flip, raising it only to tut-tut about ethical standards at the Kos.

But now, thanks to Sullivan’s reputation as one of the early blogfathers and the prestige of the Atlantic, this story is, for all intents and purposes, Out There. Which news organization will be the first to debunk it? Or, uh, not?

Instant update: Sullivan is already defending himself:

The job of a press is to ask questions which have a basis in fact. Read for yourself the full chronology here. See whether you are certain there are no legitimate questions worth asking. I have claimed nothing.

Sorry, but it doesn’t wash. 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.

If Sullivan was that worked up about about the Palin rumor, he should have e-mailed some reporters he knows and asked if they were on the case. This is the definition of a story that shouldn’t be hashed out publicly.

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  1. Rick

    I don’t care, Didn’t care about John Edwards and don’t care about this…. but the public…..who knows.Andrew Sullivan’s career is riding on this.

  2. Sean Roche

    Doesn’t even begin to make sense. Trig has Down syndrome, which is highly correlated with the mother’s age. The chance of a baby with Down syndrome approaches 3.5% as a mother approaches 45. Sarah Palin is 44. At twenty (maternal age), the risk is less than .1%.

  3. Nial Liszt

    The presumptive presidential nominee asks me “Gee, is there the slightest thing in your past that the media hordes will be able to dig up?” I think to myself, “Nah, they’ll never find out about this.”

  4. Mark

    Would it be the public’s business even if it were true?I know the pandora’s box has been opened when it comes to a politician’s personal life, but this seems like a very private matter. You’re dealing with the reputation of a 16-year-old girl who before this week probably led a relatively private life. Because of the recklessness of a few individuals, this rumor will stick with her possibly forever. It’s classic graffiti journalism where the irresponsible press just relays unfounded rumors from the crazy political fringes without bothering to ascertain if they are true or not.I know the media will find some way to portray this as a demonstration of hypocrisy – which seems to be the catchall category that the press relies on to delve in matters that should be private.I have an extremely hard time believing this story is true, but even if it is, decency requires that it not be reported.

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Mark: I am sorely tempted to respond, but I’m afraid that in doing so I would appear to be giving credence to the rumor.Let me make a general statement: When you’re running for president or vice president, there is essentially nothing that’s off the table. You don’t have to like it, but you do need to understand what I’m saying is true — or, at least, that it’s a belief held by 99.9 percent of the media and political establishment.

  6. Don, American

    Thank you for alerting me to Sullivan. Now, when I come across his writings, I’ll know what kind of sleazebag he is.

  7. Dunwich

    There was once a strong rumor about the arrest of a highly ranked religious figure in N.E. The person in question ended up doing an interview by a top reporter, to dispel things before they got out of hand. Whether the reporter initiated the broadcast or the person in question did, I don’t know. But it put an end to it. Surely Ms.Palin knows she could end any speculation quickly by going on FOX and saying there is nothing to it. Why doesn’t she?

  8. Dan Kennedy

    Dunwich: For the same reason that Obama shouldn’t have to go on television to deny rumors that he’s a Muslim extremist looking to bring jihad to America. (And yet he has. And yet the lunatic fringe still doesn’t believe him.)There is something really odious about the notion that when a public person is hit with a vicious, unfounded rumor, “all she has to do” is go to the media and deny it.

  9. O-FISH-L

    Good for you Dan in your reaction to this. We don’t agree on much but I do admire your drawing a boundary line on things like this.My initial reaction is that if this thing breaks into the MSM, and that’s a BIG IF [if not as big an if as it was yesterday] it could really boomerang against the media and their perceived brother Obama.Sullivan has now put Obama, or at least Biden, in the unenviable position of having to either denounce this story which would give it legitimacy, or saying nothing which would appear as tacit approval of it. You’re right Dan, Palin shouldn’t have to say anything.Say what you will about Rathergate, I’ll even stipulate [for the sake of this post only] that Rather’s documents were “fake but true,” the perception of “the media” trying to sabotage Bush worked in Bush’s favor and possibly precluded legitimate negative stories from appearing in the aftermath.What makes this story even riskier than Rathergate is that it’s either definitely true or definitely false. A classic example of “You can’t be a little bit pregnant.” If it’s false and the media runs with it, with the maternity of a female VP candidate’s Down Syndrome baby gratuitously called into question, whoa be the media and, if he isn’t forceful in denouncement, Obama. Palin could later be credibly found to be the Devil herself, but I’m not sure if the media could report it. With friends like Sullivan, Moore and Fowler, Obama doesn’t need enemies!

  10. Dunwich

    I don’t say Palin has to deal with the media, not at all. But if things are spinning out of control as they were for this Bishop I’m referring to, there are ways of ending it.

  11. liamstliam

    Dan: I agree with your take.But on another level, if Gov. Palin’s press spokesman says, “She’s going to watch the fireworks from here and then go to the Alaska State Fair,” when Palin is indeed going to be with McCain, can I definitively trust her when the spokesman says, “Of course it’s Gov. Palin’s baby.”I do have to say, on an related topic, if your state newspapers say you are a bad choice, you have an issue.Again, different topic. I read a teachers’ message board regularly. Some of the folks there are saying, “Well, media reports say it,” and add that bloggers are the media.Totally off-topic. Dan: I wanted to make sure that I am not always consistent in what I sign on with. This is the poster also known as Billy T or Bill Toscano.

  12. Howard Owens

    Dan, I’m with you. No ethical person would spread this rumor (in media (regardless of how you define media these days) or out) without verifying it as true.This is not one of those issues you raise and said, “we need to get this out here so people can discuss it and make up their own minds.”It’s an issue that deals with a young girl’s, a private citizen (I don’t consider elected official’s children to be legitimate fodder for public scrutiny), reputation. It isn’t a policy issue. It’s an issue of conduct, and as such, should be checked and verified before publicized.Sullivan, and the others who proceeded him, are just cruel.

  13. Peter Porcupine

    DK – Edwards was abetted, Craig was crucified. Patches Kennedy drives on drugs, but we must condone his actions as a poor sick person. Limbaugh gets hooked on painkillers, and damages nothing but EIB ratings, and we must trash him as a dangerous jubnkie.How about the LACK of reporting that both the Presidential AND Vice-Presidential candidates have children in the military and on active duty? But – it doesn’t fit the ‘chickenhawk’ meme, and so must be ignored.I’ve watched this happen over and over and over. There is no rumor about Republicans too vile, and none about a Democrat could be true and must be hushed up.

  14. Steve

    Howard O.: DailyKos did not produce a story that met normal journalistic standards. It presented circumstantial evidence and, I think, wanted others to pursue the story and nail it down. (Purely conjecture on my part, of course.) The NY Times obviously wouldn’t have gone with this story as is; the National Enquirer probably would have.So DailyKos has done something that traditional journalists find offensive and unprofessional. But y’know what, this is The Way It Is today. We’ve got a bunch of bloggers and others utilizing the Internet in new ways, and not following our (journalists’) old rules. And that’s not going to stop.That’s not to say that traditional news organizations need to get down that low, or copy the newcomers. But in this case, the fury with which the DailyKos rumor has spread does force the hand of old media: they need to confirm or debunk the DailyKos report.More of my thoughts are here: -Steve Outing

  15. Dan Kennedy

    There is no rumor about Republicans too vile, and none about a Democrat could be true and must be hushed up.And all you have to do to believe that is to ignore what happened to Bill and Hillary Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry.

  16. Dan Kennedy

    Steve O.: I’m not shocked at all by what the Kos did. It’s Andrew Sullivan, a mainstream journalist writing for a mainstream site, that sent me over the edge.

  17. michael

    Sullivan has long a history of doing stuff like this. He may be known as a “journalist”, but fundamentally he’s an inveterate gossiper, the worst kind, the kind that drops one shoe, then puts up his hands and says, “I’m just saying …”

  18. Steve

    This stuff really makes me crazy. I take a little comfort that many in the DailyKos community (of which I am a member) are expressing outrage. But there are also many who are supporting it, which disgusts me.I’ve never had much use for Sullivan, so this does little to affect my already low opinion of him. It looks like Kaus is chiming in, mostly looking at the blogger-eat-blogger nature of rumor-mongering.

  19. Kang (not the one from The Simpsons)

    Photo of a very pregnant Sarah Palin. End of story.

  20. bob gardner

    Here in Massachusetts a women I know called her boyfriend instead of an ambulance when her fluid leaked. DSS removed her children from the hospital and put them up for adoption. My friend has not been allowed any contact with them for over three years, when they were eight months old. I sure hope that the rumors about Governor Palin are true. If the rumors are false then Palin endangered her unborn child much more deliberately and more seriously than my friend did. The appeals court ruled against my friend last year. The case is the Adoption of Betsy. You won’t find much detail in the decision; most of the case is impounded. Dan, I’ve been following your posts on the first amendment and prior restraint. If you really want to find out about prior restraint try announcing that you intend to write about the Adoption of Betsy. Or try calling up Judge Terry Craven and asking her to compare Sarah Palin’s actions with those of my friend.

  21. Howard Owens

    @Steve O.: In an era of such easy rumor mongering, the standards of professional journalism do not become less, they become more.Today’s journalist must hold themselves to even standards because one of the roles of the modern journalist is to be even more trusted.In an era of free digital copies, trust, authenticity, high ethical standards, become tangible assets that can’t be copied (see Kevin Kelly). Professional journalists also play an important role in educating and insisting that all others who trade in information dissemination be aware of and be expected to abide by ethical standards. We shouldn’t let Daily Kos diarists off the hook for ethical lapses just because they have easy access to a keyboard and a modem. We may not be able to change the behavior, but we should never condone it.

  22. Rick

    Andrew Sullivan should be fired.

  23. O-FISH-L

    Drudge is now running this above the fold, or at least in the top half of his page, “Lefty Bloggers Go After Palin’s 16 year old Daughter…”So the handful of Americans who didn’t read Media Nation yesterday are finding out from Drudge today. As a Republican, my fears that something unknown (like a Bill Ayers or a Rev. Wright) might come out about Governor Palin have been assuaged. Much like the Bush coverage post-Ratghergate, the media must now tiptoe around shows a lot of class in his 8:52 AM post. Kudos.

  24. mike_b1

    hehe, you spoke too soon, fish. Palin’s 17-year-old, unmarried daughter is knocked up.Just what the conservatives who already mistrusted McCain want to hear. The only way he could insult them more is to say he’s muslim. How are you going to control the world if you can’t control your own family?Is it too late for the GOP to draft Romney?

  25. Howard Owens


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