ANCHORAGE, Alaska – Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is going on the offensive against news organizations and bloggers she says are perpetuating malicious gossip about her and her children.
But political observers say the former Republican vice-presidential candidate can’t have it both ways: trotting out the children to showcase her family values, then trying to shield them from scrutiny.
Palin’s criticism also raises questions about her motivations because she has said she is open to a presidential run in 2012.
“I think she’s positioning herself. She’s attacking the media as a way to generate support among a base she hopes will support her,” said Leonard Steinhorn, a professor of communications at American University in Washington and an expert on the presidency.
Palin shied away from interviews during the campaign, although her children often accompanied her on her travels, including her oldest daughter, Bristol, who was pregnant at the time.
But in recent weeks, she has personally reached out to media outlets such as People magazine and The Associated Press to complain about information she claimed is wrong.
She slammed reports that 18-year-old Bristol Palin and the teen’s fiance are high school dropouts. The governor insists the two are not dropouts because they enrolled in correspondence courses.
The couple last month had a son – the governor’s first grandchild.
The governor said she is speaking out to set the record straight, not because of any political aspirations.
“It’s all about the family,” she said. “I’m wired in a way that I can take the criticism. I can take the shots. But any mother would want to protect their children from lies and scandalous reporting.”
In a Jan. 5 interview with conservative filmmaker John Ziegler, Palin also questioned whether Caroline Kennedy’s quest for a New York Senate seat was as heavily scrutinized as her vice-presidential campaign.
When her comments were reported, she chastised journalists for taking her remarks “out of context to create adversarial situations.”
Steinhorn and other experts believe the first-term governor is engaged in a campaign to keep her name in the spotlight. A newcomer to national politics when she was nominated, Palin energized the Republican base but also attracted intense criticism that she had little substance.
“I think she’s exploiting and cultivating the anti-intellectual and anti-elitist side of the Republican party,” Steinhorn said. “She’s trying to salvage her reputation, so she attacks the messenger.”
Palin’s grievances include what she calls “false stories” such as a talk show host’s suggestion that she helped Levi Johnston get a job in Alaska’s North Slope oilfields, circumventing eligibility rules since he does not have a high school diploma.
Johnston’s father, an engineer for an oilfield services company, has said his position accounted for any help Levi received in getting the apprenticeship job.
Palin also lashed out at bloggers and others perpetuating the allegation that her nine-month-old son, Trig, is actually Bristol Palin’s child from a secret previous pregnancy.
Her decision to strike back at news organizations seems to contradict the governor’s earlier statements on how politicians should respond to media coverage.
Months before she was named John McCain’s running mate, Palin attended a leadership forum in Los Angeles and was asked her opinion on Sen. Hillary Clinton’s allegations that she was being unfairly treated by the media during the primaries.
Palin said Clinton did herself a disservice to even mention it. The governor said it bothered her to hear Clinton “bring that attention to herself on that level.”
Palin said her opinion has not changed since the March 2008 event and insisted that defending her children is her only motivation.
“I’m not whining about the treatment of the press, but I am calling reporters on the family aspect of this,” she said. “I think it’s unprecedented in some respects what I have seen with my children.”
It’s not unprecedented. The children and spouses of high-profile politicians always draw attention.
Early in president George W. Bush’s first term, his twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, made headlines after an embarrassing run-in with the law for underage drinking.
So did Kitty Dukakis, the wife of former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis, when she was treated for alcoholism after her husband’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 1988. She later suffered a relapse and was hospitalized after drinking rubbing alcohol.
Two weeks before President Brack Obama’s inauguration, his daughters Sasha and Malia were escorted to their new schools past a line of waiting photographers.
Palin is fuelling the stories she condemns by talking about them instead of ignoring them, said Janis Edwards, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Alabama and an expert on women candidates. One of Edwards’ classes monitored Palin’s role in a project called “The Palin Watch.”
Palin “does seem to have ambitions, and this is one way of staying in the public eye,” Edwards said.
The governor’s complaints about the media assure continued coverage, said Lisa Burns, associate professor of media studies at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.
“The media interest will wane. I think it already has,” Burns said. “I have to wonder if this is something she’s doing to keep her name out there.”