Palin, Obama rumors challenge journalists

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It’s the “silly season” and, with the tight U.S. presidential election, it seems to be getting sillier every day.

The two latest bits of evidence for that observation directly involve the media.

Sarah Palin banning books?

Is Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin a fan of book banning?

An e-mail I received from a friend today trumpeted, “Here are the books Governor [then Mayor] Sarah Palin tried to remove from the Wasilla Public Library.” The e-mail went on to list a hundred or so books from “Little Red Riding Hood” to “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” that Palin reportedly asked to be banned from the local library when she was mayor.

From all accounts, the list is fictitious. It was generated after Time magazine ran a story that quoted John Stein — whom Palin defeated in her run for mayor of Wasila, Alaska — as saying:

“She asked the library how she could go about banning books,” he says, because some voters thought they had inappropriate language in them. “The librarian was aghast.”

Time went on to say that the librarian, Mary Ellen Baker, could not be reached for comment.

That alone is a problem in these contentious times. What Time effectively did was run an accusation from a political enemy, based upon an uncorroborated second-hand account report of a conversation. Whether it proves right or wrong, it’s badly sourced.

A report in the Anchorage Daily News tells it this way, giving a first-hand account from a resident who attended the meeting in question:

“Sarah said to Mary Ellen, ‘What would your response be if I asked you to remove some books from the collection?” Kilkenny said.

The article went on to note that:

Palin herself, questioned at the time, called her inquiries rhetorical and simply part of a policy discussion with a department head “about understanding and following administration agendas.”

It was not an entirely rosy picture though. The newspaper confirmed Time’s allegation that Palin did indeed ask for the librarian’s resignation. However, it noted that the request came before the exchange between Palin and Baker, not after it.

At the time, Palin also asked for the resignations of the police chief, the public works director and the finance director. All were political appointees of the previous mayor. Indeed, both the librarian and the police chief had publicly campaigned against Palin.

As to the list, it’s not possible that Palin forwarded that list during the 1996 library discussion. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” was not even published until four years later — July 8, 2000.

Unfair ‘Muslim’ allegations re-emerge for Obama

Unfair allegations have been lobbed against Democratic Presidential candidate Barack Obama in recent days as well, stemming from his statement that “John McCain has not talked about my Muslin faith,” during Sunday’s This Week With George Stephanopolous.

You can see the quote absent context on YouTube. It’s obviously seems much more damning than the quote within its proper context, also on YouTube.

The media had a hard time figuring out what do with it in headlines. United Press International and FOXNews called it a “gaffe” — a blatant mistake. The Chicago Sun-Times headlined the story “Oops,” but also mentioned “false rumors” in the deck.

More partisan sites, such as NewsMax.com, called it a “Freudian slip.” Other, less well known publications ignored the facts and went right for the throat, such as the Kentucky Lake Times, which wrote “Obama admits ‘my Muslim faith.’

It was no doubt a difficult headline for mainstream news organizations to write. Most word choices — gaffe, mistake, misstep — could be read as falsely implying that Obama “let the truth slip.” Perhaps the best word would have been “misspoke” or “misspeaks,” indicating that he accidentally said something that he did not mean.

Looking at the words in context though, one could also argue that Obama did not misspeak. And, no, he did not say that he was a Muslim either. Like headline writers, he had a difficult time cramming a full though into an easy sentence.

Had Obama simply said “my so-called Muslim faith,” his intention would have been clear. In context, he was talking about how McCain did not directly address allegations that he was Muslim (i.e., his “so-called Muslim faith”).

In fact, Stephanopolous’ attempt at a helpful correction may have done more harm than good in confusing the issue. When he said “… your Christian faith,” Obama actually made the appropriate correction: “Well, what I’m saying is that he hasn’t suggested that I’m a Muslim.” That got lost in the discussion though.

All this should impress upon you the power of words, and how one word can make a big difference in how your thoughts are interpreted… or misinterpreted.

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This blog is maintained by Dr. Matthew M. Reavy as a service to journalism students at the University of Scranton.

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