A small, but fascinating debate over journalistic methods was ignited this week after Sarah Palin’s announcement that a leering snooper has moved in next door to her home in Alaska. On her Facebook page Monday, Palin wrote that this “new neighbor” rented a house next to hers and that he’s “overlooking Piper’s bedroom, my little garden, and the family’s swimming hole.”
The “stalker,” as he’s becoming known on pro-Palin blogs, is Joe McGinniss, a well-known author who’s writing a book about the former vice presidential candidate. The “family’s swimming hole” is Lake Lucille.
Dave Weigel, the Washington Post’s chronicler of the Tea Party movement and populist right, thought Palin’s Facebook musings – not McGinniss’s choice of a summer rental – were out of line and wrote a post on his blog blasting her. Under the headline “Sarah Palin’s strange, unprofessional and paranoid grudge,” Weigel wrote:
…what, exactly, is wrong with this?
Politicians don’t have veto power over who gets to write about them, or how they research their stories, as long as they’re within the bounds of the law. It’s incredibly irresponsible for them to sic their fans on journalists they don’t like. And that’s what Palin is doing here — she has already inspired Glenn Beck to accuse McGinniss of “stalking” Palin and issuing a threat to boycott his publisher.
This is really the ultimate example of the way Palin manipulates the press and inverts the relationship between reporters and politicians, turning the former into “stalkers,” and the latter — as long as they’re Republicans or members of her family — into saints whom no one can criticize. No one in the media should reward Palin for this irresponsible and pathetic bullying.
Obviously, this is a free country and anyone has a right to rent any house they want. But, as Ben Smith points out, this shouldn’t prevent Palin from saying she finds it annoying that a journalist has moved in next door, which is the general gist of her Facebook post. Additionally, I find it interesting that Weigel—who has done great work covering the day-to-day goings on in the populist right—seems angry that Palin is “bullying” a journalist who’s writing a book about her.
Isn’t this what a journalist writing a critical book about a subject should expect? To be bullied and boycotted by supporters of the subject? This is not new. What is new is the way Palin chose to react to McGinniss’s move. Rather than hunker down and use back channels and legal threats to stymie McGinniss’s work – as public figures have historically often done in cases like this – she’s using Facebook to bring it all out into the open.
For what it’s worth, here’s Glenn Beck’s take, in which he suggests Todd Palin is showing restraint by not beating up McGinnis. (Click the above link and scroll down for video from Beck’s radio show.)
Weigel says he got more reader feedback on his Palin piece than anything else he’s written for the Washington Post. He felt compelled to post some snippets from his mailbag today.
And Slate’s Jack Shafer has also weighed in, admiring McGinniss’s approach and his stealthy promotional strategy:
I admire his determination to get the story and have no problems, ethically or morally, with him getting as close to his subject as possible—even if his technique seems a little stalkerish.
Taking up residence next to Palin doesn’t even approach violating her legal right to privacy. She has no legal right to blind eyes looking at her property from an adjoining property or even from the street. If McGinniss didn’t live next door, he’d be completely within his rights to interview Palin’s neighbors about her. In fact, he’d be remiss if he didn’t grill them about her.
It’s called legwork, it’s called immersion journalism, and it doesn’t look pretty. But it should come as a surprise to only naive newspaper readers that every day journalists treat the subjects of investigations the way McGinniss is treating Palin.
I’ll predict that McGinniss’ deck-side observations of the Palin family will not likely turn up much beyond atmosphere for his book. But that’s not the reason he rented the house. It’s his way of skywriting for all of Alaska—and America—to see that he’s on Palin’s case and that he’s very available to sources if they want to share with him. A couple of more stunts like this, and you can expect the Joe McGinniss book to debut in the Times best-seller list.
What do you think, Swamplanders? Is this a publicity stunt by McGinniss or is he fishing for material from over his porch railing?