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Journalism professor: former Palin flack trying to kill birth hoax discussion

Editor's note: On April 7, the student newspaper at Northern Kentucky University, The Northerner, reported online about a reaction that research by an associate professor at the school, Bradford W. Scharlott, received from former Palin administration spokesman Bill McAllister. Subsequently, a political blog continued the story based on comments McAllister reportedly made to the Northerner. At the center of the dust-up is an academic conference paper draft by Scharlott that seeks to explain mass media's treatment of the rumor that former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin didn't give birth to her son Trig. Read The Northerner's original report and the follow-up by the blog Politicalgates, both of which link to the full draft text of the conference paper, "Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor: Did a Spiral of Silence Shut Down the Story?" Read Bill McAllister's response to the following op-ed.

Sarah Palin's former press secretary Bill McAllister wrote this to me last Tuesday night. "If we ever meet, I'll slap you. In a different era, I'd challenge you to a duel."

And Mr. McAllister, not satisfied with sharing those thoughts with me alone, put them in emails under the heading "Brad Scharlott disgraces your university" that went to many of my colleagues at NKU.

Here's the background.

I've written a research paper with the title "Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor: Did a Spiral of Silence Shut Down the Story?" I have submitted that paper to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, with the hope of presenting it at the group's fall meeting. (Papers go through a judging process.)

And, because he appears in that paper, I sent a copy of it to Mr. McAllister, asking if he had any reaction. (McAllister served as Palin's director of communications from mid-2008 to mid-2009.)

Ever since August of 2008, I have been fascinated by how the U.S. press reacted to the rumor that Palin did not truly give birth to Trig, reportedly born in April 2008, just as I have been fascinated by the claim that Obama was not born in the United States. Both rumors arose around the same time in 2008 (the Palin rumor started in Alaska), but they have had different histories.

The Obama fake-birth-certificate idea (and variants of that) have had no problem getting into the press -- hundreds of stories about whether he is truly qualified to be president have appeared in the nation's newspapers since the start of 2008, based on a search in the Newspaper Index database.

By contrast, the idea that Palin may have staged a hoax concerning the birth of Trig has essentially become taboo in mainstream media, with only a few stories in the Anchorage Daily News treating the question in a serious way.

Eric Boehlert summarized the situation nicely last July when he wrote in Media Matters for America that "back in 2008, 99 percent of people in 'the media' did the right thing and ignored the Trig nonsense." And Newspaper Index shows the same has been true since then.

Why the enormous difference in rumor coverage? In my paper, I suggest that the "spiral of silence" phenomenon came into play with the hoax rumor about Palin but not the one about Obama.

In a nutshell, a spiral of silence takes place when people perceive an idea they hold is outside of what most people seem to think and therefore censor themselves, to avoid disapproval or ridicule. And the more such people censor themselves, the more outside the mainstream the minority idea becomes, until the idea is virtually extinguished from the mainstream, at least as represented in the mass media.

A spiral of silence would seem to explain the virtual taboo in mainstream U.S. media relating to the Trig hoax rumor -- even though many Americans privately question Palin's birth story. Prominent British author Christopher Hitchens, writing from Washington, D.C, last year, observed in the Spectator, a British publication: "An astonishing number of well-informed people tell me that Sarah Palin is not in fact the mother of baby Trig, but that she is 'covering up' for another family member whose child he really is."

By contrast, various factors -- such as the aggressiveness of "truthers" and the helpfulness of conservative politicians in, say, proposing legislation relating to birth certificates -- have kept the Obama rumor front and center in the nation's media.

To make the case in my paper that the media should have paid more attention to the Trig hoax rumor, I pointed out that when the rumor first appeared in nationally prominent blog sites Palin offered no documentary evidence, such as a birth certificate, to prove her maternity.

Instead, she revealed to the world that Bristol was then pregnant, which was supposed to prove that Sarah must be Trig's mother, given when Trig was reportedly born. But of course, if there had been a hoax, then Trig's actual birth date is unknown.

One thing that greatly helped the McCain campaign squelch the hoax rumor was the mysterious appearance on the internet, right after the hoax rumor broke nationally, of two photos showing Palin looking very pregnant, much more so than in any other publicly available photos. (The poster of the photos was never identified.)

Indeed, during the previous spring, reporters for the Anchorage Daily News variously wrote that Palin "simply does not look pregnant" (at seven months) and that she "did not get big with this pregnancy" (after she reportedly gave birth). Published pictures from the spring support the reporters' observations.

One of those two mystery photos, taken on April 13, shows Palin being interviewed by a TV reporter. The other picture shows her standing next to TV newsman Bill McAllister, who, I wrote in my paper, "coincidentally would become her director of communications three months later." (In early April, a Daily News columnist wrote that McAllister was preparing to leave KTUU, and bloggers later wondered if he had been negotiating a job with the Palin administration while still covering it.)

The fact that I italicized "coincidentally" is what sparked McAllister's seeming outrage.

He wrote: "The italicized word 'coincidentally' … makes you a scoundrel …"

And he continued: "I can tell you that I never even heard of the fake pregnancy rumor until the VP selection. Let me repeat that: As the most connected politics reporter in the state for years, I NEVER EVEN HEARD OF IT!!!!"

However, on August 31, the day McCain selected Palin, Anchorage Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins wrote that the fake pregnancy rumor was "long simmering in Alaska."

The day before that, a Daily News reporter had asked McAllister if Bristol was pregnant. He replied: "I don't know. I have no evidence that Bristol's pregnant." Two days later, the McCain campaign said Bristol was five months pregnant.

What McAllister is trying to do now to me is what I write about in my paper -- a clear attempt to kill any discussion of what happened in April 2008. He could have responded to my paper by explaining the circumstances surrounding the mysterious picture he appears in next to Palin, such as who took the picture and why. Instead, he practically threatens violence against me. Let me implore him here to explain what he knows about those two mysterious pictures and how they got on the internet.

Bradford W. Scharlott, Ph. D, an associate professor of journalism at Northern Kentucky University, has been a college teacher since 1982. He earned his doctorate in mass communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his master's in journalism at Indiana University. He has worked as a newspaper reporter and a writer for a federal agency. His academic research has been published in numerous journals, and most of it has been historical in nature.