Blood in the Snow: Maslin’s NYT Review of The Rogue Is Intellectually Dishonest
Five days before a literary embargo theoretically prohibited any reviews from appearing in the mainstream media, the New York Times delivered what was effectively a journalistic hit (executed by Janet Maslin) on bestselling author Joe McGinniss and his long-awaited book-length profile of Alaska’s former governor, The Rogue: Searching for the Real Sarah Palin.
Since then, the review has gone viral, in both the rightwing blogosphere and, even more troubling, in the mainstream media, and has been used as a political weapon—there is no other word for it—by everyone from Todd Palin to Andrew Breitbart in attacking McGinniss and his book. Maslin’s initial catchphrases, most notably her references to “caustic, unsubstantiated gossip” and “unnamed sources,” swiftly became the dominant meme surrounding the book long before others even had a chance to read it. Indeed several mainstream reporters cited the Maslin review without having read the book itself. Only yesterday the Huffington Post shamefully linked to Maslin’s review when it fallaciously reported that The Rogue claims Palin had “slept with a string of black men.” It does not.
As reviews go, it is a bloody hatchet job from beginning to end, rendered with a dull and ragged blade. From the very first paragraph, Maslin hacks away at McGinniss, whose collected oeuvre stretches back to his 1969 bestseller The Selling of the President and the classic Going to Extremes (1980), which deftly chronicled the changing nature of the Last Frontier under the economic, political and cultural onslaught brought about by the 1970s oil boom and the completion of the Alaska pipeline. I was—and remain—an admirer of both works.
I should also acknowledge that I am the author of an earlier book on the former Alaska governor, The Lies of Sarah Palin: The Untold Story Behind Her Relentless Quest for Power, published by St. Martin’s in May, and which I suppose in some people’s eyes would make me something of a competitor with McGinniss, though I never looked at it that way. I sensed at the outset that our books would be very different—and they are, told through very different eyes and voices, and with an entirely different focus—although they come to startlingly similar conclusions about Ms. Palin, both as a human being and as a political figure. While I have never met McGinniss personally, we were introduced by email last year through mutual friends in Alaska and we occasionally communicated (or, more accurately, commiserated) about the poisonous ordeal of covering Palin. But I had not seen a single word of the McGinniss book until I read the first “installment” in Doonesbury, which featured excerpts from the book (all by “named” sources, incidentally), and then received a review copy that arrived in the mail later that week.
I was nearly three-quarters of the way through it by the time that Maslin’s review was first posted on the Times web site. I was immediately appalled by its intellectual dishonesty, its distorted portrait of the book, and its unbridled demonization of McGinniss. She calls the book “dated, petty and easily available to anyone with Internet access.” Really? Then why, one must ask, has the book caused such a ruckus? Are there reports on the Internet, for instance, of Palin’s mass firing of people of color during her first weeks as Governor of Alaska or personal accounts of her dominionist religious beliefs? Is there a full-scale work that combines the elegance and depth of McGinniss’ reporting into a composite narrative? I think not. Indeed, the power of The Rogue is that the whole of its devastating narrative is greater than the sum of its parts.
Moreover, roughly nine months after the assassination attempt on Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords—over whose congressional district Palin had placed crosshair images on her SarahPAC website—there’s not a single mention by Maslin of Palin’s troubling behavior and commentary, both before and after the carnage that left six innocent bystanders dead and another 13 wounded; nor is there a single reference to her many demagogic (and unsubstantiated) claims regarding President Obama, with whom she is strangely obsessed (her charges of “death panels” and “palling around with terrorists” come immediately to mind). Nor does Maslin mention Palin’s troubling behavior on the campaign trail, with her ramped up rhetoric that lead respected Congressmember John Lewis to condemn Palin for “sowing the seeds of hatred and division” throughout the country. All of this is apparently forgiven, or conveniently forgotten, by Maslin, whose Sarah Palin is—once again—a victim. Poor Sarah. Poor, poor Sarah Palin.
Early on in her review, Maslin gives the game away. She clearly has taken sides against McGinniss regarding his moving next door to his subject on the banks of Lake Lucille. Heaven forbid! After mocking a reference that McGinniss makes to some nesting grebes, Maslin declares: “Tweets emanated from the Palin place, too. But they were the kind that Mr. McGinniss could have monitored from his home in Massachusetts.”
Seriously? A book about Palin could have been written in Massachusetts without ever stepping foot in Wasilla or the Mat-Su Valley? Is she kidding us? That’s exactly what John McCain thought regarding his shoddy vetting of Palin. And it’s what softball journalists who have glorified Palin’s record as governor of Alaska have claimed as well. It’s a con job from beginning to end.
Sarah Palin is clearly the product of two deep strains in American politics: One emanates from Alaska, where isolation and corruption define its political culture; the other is the dark underbelly of the American body politic that has produced demagogues from Huey P. Long to Joe McCarthy to, I dare say, Sarah Palin. From the friendly confines of Maslin’s home in uppity, lily-white Pleansantville, New York, she apparently can see neither.
Having spent approximately two years on the Palin beat, let’s just say I know the terrain, both literally and physically, in ways that Maslin never could and never will. The stories about the Palins and their intimidating, vengeful behavior absolutely permeate southcentral Alaska, and while I can hold my own with a pistol (Alaskans offered me weapons as well), I would have never moved in next door. Ever. I thought McGinniss’s decision to do so was absolutely brilliant (from not only a publicity standpoint, but also as a journalistic strategy for getting those close to Palin to talk to him)—and courageous—and he would have been thoroughly foolish, if not professionally negligent, to have turned his back on the opportunity. Was he stalking Sarah Palin? Hardly. The only person who stalks Sarah Palin and her family is Sarah Palin.
When I returned from Alaska in August of 2009, I told a friend about an encounter I had earlier that summer at a Tea Party gathering in Anchorage, during which time guys with extended beer bellies carrying pistols in holsters tried to intimidate me as I was covering their rally. “Pistols in their holsters?” my friend queried in disbelief. I didn’t press it. If you haven’t spent time in southcentral Alaska, it’s hard to comprehend quite fully. The following year, during Palin sycophant Joe Miller’s ill-fated run for the U.S. Senate, someone sent me a link to footage of a family-oriented Fourth of July parade in Eagle River, located between Anchorage and Wasilla, at which supporters of Miller openly carried assault rifles and side arms. Some of the same guys who confronted me in Anchorage were in the footage. When I wrote a piece about it for the Huffington Post, one of my liberal sources in Wasilla said to me: “You’re making much too much of the guns, Geoffrey. Everyone up here carries guns.”
Janet Maslin would know nothing of these peculiar Alaska dynamics from the sanctity of Pleansantville, where, her Wiki bio duly notes, she serves as President of the Board of the Jacob Burns Film Center. The Jacob Burns Film Center! No, you cannot see Sarah Palin from there! Moreover I cannot imagine Maslin at the Mug Shot Saloon or A-1 Pawn and Gun Loans in Wasilla. And without going there, she could never understand fully the woman that John McCain irresponsibly selected to be his running mate in August of 2008. No author could.
Nor does Maslin appear to know much about Alaska political history or its political economy. There’s not a single mention of the culture of corruption that has defined Alaska since the oil companies began purchasing the State Legislature decades ago (she does, however, mention the Palin’s toilet). Nor does she seem particularly astute in respect to American politics. She doesn’t even mention the Tea Party or say a word about Palin’s political aspirations in 2012. She makes fun of the Doonesbury installments, but Maslin’s ignorance of these forces would seem to be the far more comical. One has to wonder why she was assigned this review.
Indeed, Maslin would seem to be a very odd choice for the task. A math major in college, she began her journalism career as a rock critic, became the Times film reviewer for two decades (I was a fan) and then switched to book reviews about a decade ago. Her most recent subjects include books by or about cultural celebrities, all of whom are white: Roger Ebert, Jill Clayburgh, Mick Jagger, Joseph Heller, Keith Richards, Angelina Jolie, Patti Smith, Rob Lowe, and yes, Tina Fey, who famously caricatured Palin on Saturday Night Live. That’s about as close as Maslin has come to Palin World.
More to the point, there’s not a single review by Maslin in 2011 addressing the hard-scrabble world of contemporary American political discourse or what’s at stake as the country confronts its political leadership in next year’s national elections. Not a word. And therein lies the problem: Maslin treats The Rogue as a celebrity portrait—not as a book about the woman widely viewed, even by the Republican establishment, to be the most polarizing figure on the American political landscape since George Wallace.
In my eyes, Maslin’s most egregious claim—and the one most often repeated by right-wing defenders of Palin and by the mainstream media as well—is her assertion that McGinniss trades in “caustic, unsubstantiated gossip about the Palins, often from unnamed sources.”
As a film and book reviewer, Maslin knows absolutely nothing about developing sources in the field. She has never had to deal with the decision of whether or not to use an anonymous source. In fact, the news side of the Times quotes unnamed sources on a daily basis, all the time. The paper did so today; it does so every day. John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s best-selling Game Change, which brilliantly chronicled the 2008 presidential race, did so without the benefit of any named sources. (It, by the way, contains a brutal portrait of Palin; the Times review called it “vivid” and “spicy.”) Watergate would have never been broken were it not for anonymous sources. There would be no Bob Woodward. Maslin acts as though McGinniss is the first and only writer to ever do so. It’s a sham.
That said, a significant portion of the McGinniss book is based on substantiated evidence and named sources. In fact, at a quick count, I tallied more than six dozen interviewees in the book who appear “on-the-record,” and most of the book’s most troubling revelations were actually confirmed. Even the alleged liaison between Palin and former University of Michigan basketball star Glen Rice was confirmed by Rice (although Maslin tries to dismiss the confirmation by calling McGinniss’s questioning “flagrantly leading”; it is not). It was Palin’s former schoolmate John Bitney, later to serve as her senior campaign advisor and as her Legislative Director, who confirmed that Todd Palin could often be found “on the end of a straw.” Hardly anonymous.
To my mind, some of the most devastating and revelatory interviews in The Rogue were utterly ignored by Maslin. Take for instance the assertions made by veteran Alaska State Trooper Gary Wheeler, who was assigned to serve as Palin’s security detail right after she was elected in 2006. Maslin, of course, doesn’t know Wheeler, but I do. He’s a candid, straight-shooting cop, born and raised in Alaska, who served more than a quarter-century with the Troopers. I have no idea about his politics (I suspect he is a fiscal conservative), but he is intolerant of bullshit and duplicity. He describes Palin’s approach to the governorship as a “part-time job.” Palin, according to Wheeler, who observed her closely during her two years as governor, “doesn’t belong leading people; she’s just not smart enough. She has no intellect and no interest in learning, because she already thinks she knows it all.” He concluded by noting that Palin’s “no mama grizzly; she’s a rabid wolf. Take a look at the snow: wherever she’s been, there’s a trail of blood in her wake.”
When it comes to assessing Palin, I’ll take the word of the guy who was charged with protecting her over the arm-chair observations of Janet Maslin any day. And nearly everyone I spoke to in Alaska—where I conducted dozens of interviews with people from across the political spectrum (but mostly on the Republican side)—came to the same conclusion.
Then there’s yet another omission in Maslin’s review: the running thread in The Rogue of racism in the greater Palin clan, manifested by Palin’s father, her husband and by Palin herself. It was Bitney—on-the-record—who noted the mass firings of people of color in the Palin administration. Perhaps Maslin can’t see that from Pleasantville either. Of the 200 most recent books she’s reviewed, there wasn’t a single one listed by either an African American or Latino author, and only a handful by Asian Americans. The last African American author she reviewed was more than two years ago, in June of 2009. Talk about institutional racism.
Finally, there is a hint by Maslin, executed in parenthetical code, that the McGinniss book is (whisper) sexist: “(many of these gossips are men),” she writes. It’s a cheap trick used to impose an allegation of misogyny on the book and its author. In fact, there are several women named as sources in The Rogue, including former Republican state Senator Lyda Green and Palin’s former campaign manager, Laura Chase, both of whom served as mentors to Palin and both of whose blood was left in the snow. Both conservative, both widely respected, and both still living in greater Wasilla, these women provide testimony about Palin that should not be ignored. Maslin makes no mention of them.
By rendering such women in The Rogue invisible, Maslin has done a distinct disservice to these women with her implication. It took a considerable amount of courage for them to step forward and speak on the record. The fact of the matter is—and recent polls support this conclusively—that Palin is far less popular among Alaskan women than she is among men. Indeed, her approval rating is lower among college educated women (an embarrassing 24 percent) than any other demographic in the Last Frontier. (Whisper: the vast majority of the books Maslin reviews are by men.)
Palin has been utterly erratic (and purely opportunistic) in respect to feminism. As I noted in my book, she told Katie Couric in 2008 that she was a feminist one day, then completely changed her mind a few days later with Brian Williams. Two years later, in April of 2010, she was claiming the feminist mantle again with her “mama grizzly” routine. In an important opinion piece appearing last year in the Washington Post entitled “The Fake Feminism of Sarah Palin,” Jessica Valenti noted that “Palin isn’t a feminist—not in the slightest.”
Feminists — or anyone who cares about women’s progress — need to stop Palin from turning feminism into yet another empty slogan. Because “sisterhood” and meaningless rallying cries aside, American women need real feminism in their lives.
Palin doesn’t deserve to be protected by a faux feminism that denigrates the views of women with whom she has worked and who, in the end, judge her quite harshly.
Shortly after my book came out, I received a thoroughly unsolicited response from a former Palin staffer who pointed out a particular paragraph in my chapter entitled “Juneau” as precisely capturing the Palin strategy when dealing with the press:
Palin learned early on in her political career that, given the bifurcated nature of mainstream journalism, with its implicit acceptance of “two sides to every story,” that if she countered hard enough with denials or counter-narratives of her own, at worst she would break even, that she could cancel out any allegations or charges of impropriety. It was all about the push-back, the denial, the counterpunch.
“That’s exactly what she does,” he wrote. “That’s her secret.”
In October of 2010, Palin attacked Politico writers Jonathan Martin, Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei for articles they had written using unnamed sources. She called Martin “a punk” and demanded that Allen and VandeHei “man up.” It was classic Palin, turning herself into a victim and demonizing reporters.
Martin refused to be made into a journalistic eunuch. “If Sarah Palin can call a journalist ‘yellow’ and try to denounce every story written about her,” he noted, “it’s an effort to try to make the mainstream media not legitimate. If they’re not legitimate, she doesn’t have to deal with us and can stay in the Fox News world, conservative talk radio world. If we’re not real and legit, there’s no point to deal with us, which means she doesn’t have to face scrutiny and accountability.”
Maslin makes no mention of this dynamic in her review, nor does she seem to be even the slightest bit aware of it. The rules of engagement have been rendered different by Palin, not by those who write about her, because, as Martin noted, she doesn’t allow herself to be subjected to scrutiny or accountability. And she—and her rabid supporters—maintain a threatening presence against those who dare to criticize her, making “on the record” interviews all the more difficult to obtain. Only a few weeks ago, conservative icon Ann Coulter complained to Laura Ingraham on Fox News about this very phenomenon. Conservatives, she noted, are afraid to voice even the “tiniest of criticism” of Palin “because they don’t want to deal with the hate mail….You say her voice is a few octaves too high… and you’ll be inundated with enraged emails and letters.” Or worse. Much worse.
None of this means to suggest that Palin is open season for any outlandish charge or allegation, but it does mean that the rules of journalistic engagement have been altered, not by choice, but by necessity.
After two years of researching Palin—going through 40,000 pages of documents and interviewing more than 200 people, many of whom were once her closest allies—the conclusions I came to about this divisive woman are very similar to those arrived at by Joe McGinniss: she is vindictive and vengeful, a pathological liar, driven not by a political commitment to the greater good, but by both an obsession with celebrity and a strange dominionist Christianity. I don’t discount Maslin’s right to her opinion, but in her snide and rather shallow assertions about The Rogue, she has, in fact, committed the very journalistic transgressions of which she accuses McGinniss.
Palin’s response to exposés about her—or her family—has always been to attack the messenger. In her review of The Rogue, Janet Maslin is now doing Palin’s bidding for her. Maslin’s intentions may be noble, but her instincts have betrayed her. I know which version of Palin’s persona rings closest to the truth. And it is not Janet Maslin’s.