The Journalist and Sarah Palin

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Hi everyone. As the latest addition to Time’s Washington bureau—as well as the estimable Swampland team—I guess I should introduce myself. I’m Michael Crowley, and I’ve just joined Time after a long and happy stint at The New Republic, where I spent nearly a decade covering national politics, presidential campaigns, and, most recently, Barack Obama’s foreign policy. (You can read more about all that here.) Naturally I’m delighted to be part of another great institution, and am happy to get rolling this week with my first print article, a look at Rand Paul, his father Ron, and their critical role in the Tea Party movement.

And here’s my opening thought for the blog: Joe McGinniss should not be living next door to Sarah Palin. Of course the storied author has every right to rent a house overlooking her back yard in the service of reporting a biography of the former Alaska governor. But there’s a difference between what’s legal and what’s proper, or wise.

My first objection is that politicians, even combative ones whom many people loathe, deserve a degree of privacy. (Yes, there are exceptions, for instance when their private behavior seems to have a direct bearing on their public duties). Much the way free speech rules protect everyone from preachers to haters, it doesn’t matter what you think of Sarah Palin. If you believe in Hillary Clinton’s right to privacy, then you also have to support it for the pit bull with lipstick.

And what does McGinniss hope to learn anyway? As Kate Pickert noted, Palin has already erected a tall fence blocking his view, and even if she hadn’t I suspect McGinniss wasn’t about to be privy to any wild parties. This feels like a publicity stunt—a brilliant one, to be sure, but not a mark of serious journalism. McGinniss’s son is defending his father on the grounds that proximity to a subject is essential to good journalism. I suppose that depends on what kind of journalism you’re doing. The best way to understand Palin, I suspect, is to report out how she makes decisions, what she really believes, what forces in the Republican Party support and oppose her. Not to observe her private home life. Political journalism should not emulate The Real World. (I consider it mitigating, but not absolving, that McGinniss was apparently offered the rental by the house’s owner, who has a financial axe to grind at Palin.)

Which leads to what really bothers me about McGinniss’s gimmick. It is bad for journalism. It plays right into the hands of the many people—including Sarah Palin, who is shrewdly ridiculing McGinniss—with an interest in portraying reporters as creeps with no sense of decency. Journalism faces a credibility crisis, and reporters’ motives are under attack by outlets like Fox News, Media Matters and a thousand merciless blogs. Joe McGinniss’s very clever but utterly hollow stunt, it seems to me, exacerbates that problem. That doesn’t only make life harder for all his colleagues, but it makes life easier for people who want to undermine trust in the media. People just like Sarah Palin.