Gov. Sarah Palin's introduction onto the national stage has ignited scores of Alaska-based narratives and mini-controversies as reporters and voters scrambled to learn more about her political past.
But has any other Palin issue produced the type of visceral response ignited by the revelation that while she was mayor of Wasilla, the town began charging rape victims or their insurance companies for costly emergency-room rape kits and post-assault examinations?
The story remains woefully under-covered by the mainstream media, where most outlets have shied away from tackling the touchy topic as a straight news story about Palin's political past. But the issue continues to generate all kinds of discussion in the opinion pages and online. (AmericaBlog was among the first big-name liberal blogs to highlight the story.)
The persistent buzz, I think, stems from the fact that the Wasilla story just seems so ... weird. What municipality would bill rape victims for traumatic post-assault forensic exams? And especially in Alaska, where the rape rate is twice the national average. And wouldn't charging the victims or their insurance companies (assuming the victims were insured) simply drive down the number of women who are willing to report sexual attacks?
Having that story hover around Palin as she introduced herself to the American people could not have helped the Republican ticket. And I suspect that's why the conservative press and right-wing bloggers have tried so hard to knock the story down, why they have been so quick to condemn journalists who dared report the rape-kit story as being unethical and biased.
But facts are not a fungible commodity.
And the hurdle the GOP press simply cannot clear in its debunking effort is that the policy did exist while Palin was mayor. Boxed in by the obvious, overeager bloggers instead claim Palin didn't "support" or even know about the policy and that Palin did not personally bill the victims herself. (Strawman alert: Nobody ever suggested Palin went around knocking on doors demanding payments.)
Sadly for Palin partisans, they got schooled on the Wasilla specifics by a 20-year-old blogger and junior at George Washington University who did what so many on the right can't quite pull off: fact-based reporting.
He proved without a doubt that Palin, as mayor, signed off on the initiative that forced rape victims or their insurance companies to foot the bill for the post-assault exam kits.
It's important to highlight the deficiencies of the so-called debunking of the rape-kit story so that reporters don't continue to ignore the issue, which raises questions about Palin's leadership. So they don't take seriously the conservative claims that the story has been proven a "lie," a "smear," a "myth," and a "bunch of baloney."
The loud pronouncements by the right have become almost a cult-like mantra online, and they seem to be effectively scaring the press off the story.
For instance, The Washington Post has never written about the rape-kit story in its news pages, according to a search of Nexis, nor has The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Baltimore Sun, The Boston Globe, Newsweek, or Time.*
Credit goes to USA Today for treating the issue seriously, while CNN.com posted a detailed investigation. And on the air, CNN seems to have reported more on the issue than its cable competitors, which isn't saying much, since its competitors have virtually ignored the story.
As for the news networks, there's been a blackout on the rape-kit story. Journalists ought to be reporting the story and asking Palin to give detailed, unambiguous answers, since the rape-kit issue could offer some insights into how she governs.
Instead, the press has treated the story as something of a taboo. And the loud, bogus claims about it being "debunked" likely add to its untouchable status.
Trust me, nothing has been debunked.
"No truth to the rape kit lie. Doesn't really matter. They just make the shit up," wrote conservative blogger Atlas Shrugs, blind to the irony of making shit up while accusing others of making shit up. The blogger was in search of a "retraction" from the media, which "deliberately obfuscates and lies by omission."
Again, irony alert: Somebody deliberately obfuscating the facts of the rape-kit story? That would be Atlas Shrugs.
Writing at National Review Online, Jim Geraghty, setting out to "debunk" the story, claimed that "liberal bloggers have cited the story of Wasilla charging victims for rape kits as evidence that as mayor, Sarah Palin backed cruel and insensitive policies. But just about everything we know from initial accounts of this controversy is wrong."
Indeed, according to NRO, the rape-kit stories online and in the press represented "crimes on truth."
That's almost too silly for words. (Click here for a paragraph-by-paragraph evisceration of Geraghty's rape-kit spin; and by a gossip website, Jezebel, no less.) The "initial accounts" of the controversy were quite straightforward: Wasilla once had a policy on the books -- publicly supported by Palin's hand-picked police chief -- that it would charge rape victims or their insurers to collect evidence of sexual assaults. (Or to be more precise, the town would no longer pay for the fees out of its own budget and would seek reimbursements.)
And while that policy was in effect, Palin was mayor, and Palin approved the town budget. In 2000, though, that practice was deemed so offensive that the Republican-leaning Alaska Legislature stepped in and quickly passed a law so that towns like Wasilla could not charge victims.
And guess what? That's all still true. (Where exactly do the "crimes of truth" come in to view?) Geraghty didn't even try to disprove it. Instead, he got lost in the weeds reading minutes from legislative hearings and became wildly impressed that the town of Wasilla never came up in the hearings and that Wasilla wasn't the only town in Alaska to charge for rape kits.
That somehow led him to the conclusion that bloggers and the Obama campaign owed Palin "an apology." Why? Because Wasilla, Geraghty stressed, was not the only town in Alaska that adopted the rape-kit policy.
But so what? I mean that literally: So what if Wasilla wasn't the only town that adopted the rape-test policy?
The argument represented another straw-man effort, so not surprisingly, conservative media critics at NewsBusters embraced it as well. Throwing a temper tantrum after a Boston Globe editorial raised the same rape-kit question that everybody else was asking (i.e. "Why?"), one NewsBusters writer complained, "It is absolutely untrue that the town of Wasilla was the one town that caused the Alaska Legislature to ban the fees in question."
That's all well and good, but the Globe never claimed Wasilla was the "one town" that adopted the rape kit policy. (Why would the Globe even care if Wasilla was the "one town"? It's irrelevant.)
Fact: Wasilla is the "one town" that adopted the rape-kit policy whose former mayor is currently running for vice president. That's what made it a legitimate news story; that's why it's deserves far more focus than the fleeting mainstream media attention it's received so far.
Other so-called proof used to "debunk" the story was equally lame. Confederate Yankee, a popular GOP site that took a lead role in the pushback, pointed to a statement recently released by Palin in response to a 14-point questionnaire submitted by her hometown newspaper. One of the questions asked about the rape-kit story:
The entire notion of making a victim of a crime pay for anything is crazy. I do not believe, nor have I ever believed, that rape victims should have to pay for an evidence-gathering test. As governor, I worked in a variety of ways to tackle the problem of sexual assault and rape, including making domestic violence a priority of my administration.
That's what's commonly referred to as a non-denial denial; Palin said the idea was "crazy," but she never addressed the newspaper's very specific question: "During your tenure as Mayor, what was the police department and city's standard operating procedure in recovering costs of rape kits?"
Palin avoided a direct response to the direct question in favor of commenting on the "notion" at hand.
But for Confederate Yankee and many other conservatives, Palin's elusive denial about a plainly embarrassing policy her town adopted was all the proof they needed that the rape-kit story was false. Palin said so!
Please note that as part of the same newspaper questionnaire, Palin continued to insist that she had put an end to the so-called "Bridge to Nowhere" ("I cancelled the project"), despite the fact that numerous news and independent fact-checking organizations have pointed out Palin's bridge claim is patently false. Knowing that her "Bridge to Nowhere" questionnaire answer was not truthful, why should her vague denial regarding the rape-kit story carry real weight?
But the bloggers had more proof the rape-kit story was a smear: Wasilla town officials, including current police chief Angella Long, recently announced that they could not find any records of the police department ever billing a rape victim for a post-assault test. And with that, Confederate Yankee announced, "If current Police Chief Long's information is correct, then Mayor Palin didn't know that rape victims were charged for rape kits, because none were."
Two holes in that logic are plainly apparent. First, local hospitals administered the post-assault examinations, which means hospitals likely generated the bills sent to the victims or their insurance companies, not the town of Wasilla. But it was the town of Wasilla that set the policy instructing the hospital to bill the victim. (And naturally, the hospital/patient records in question remain confidential.) So the fact that the town can't find any collection records is not surprising since the hospital did the collecting.
In other words, for years, the local hospital billed the Wasilla police department when it brought in a rape victim to be tested. After the town adopted a new policy, the Wasilla police instructed the hospital to bill the victim or her insurance company instead.
But secondly and more important, whether the town actually billed anyone during the relatively short time the policy was in place was secondary to the fact that the policy was instituted while Palin was mayor. Or was the very small town of Wasilla in the habit of adopting budgetary policies without the mayor's consent, and Palin in the habit of signing off on city budget initiatives she disapproved of?
Based on the annual budget documents she signed off on, Palin either consented to the policy or signed documents she hadn't bothered to read -- both issues that should get the media's attention.
Oh, yeah: A third point regarding the claim that the town never billed anyone. Here's what Palin's hand-picked police chief told a reporter for the local newspaper, the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, in 2000 after the state outlawed the practice of billing victims for rape kits: "In the past, we've charged the cost of the exams to the victim's insurance company when possible" [emphasis added].
Yes, you read that correctly. Palin's own police chief freely discussed how the town of Wasilla had charged "the victim's insurance company" for the post-assault exam. (He opposed the new state law that forced Wasilla to stop.)
So how did Confederate Yankee deal with the large blemish on the rape-kit-story-is-a-smear meme? Easy: He ignored it. In his September 22 post "debunking" the controversy, the blogger made no mention of the damning Frontiersman article.
The NewsBusters writer took the same route when he harangued The Boston Globe on October 2 for its rape-kit editorial. The article that quoted Palin's police chief, in real time, acknowledging that the town had charged victims' insurance companies and that he was disappointed the town could not continue to do so was completely ignored in order to sustain the right-wing claim that the rape-kit story had been completely concocted.
See how much easier it is to be indignant when facts are ignored?
And yes, the police chief's 2000 quote remains an enormous obstacle for conservatives who desperately want to debunk the Wasilla story. Not surprisingly, some have even raised doubts about the police chief's quote in the Frontiersman.
But ask yourself this: If the police chief's comments in 2000 had been some kind of massive misunderstanding and were being foolishly used to fuel the current rape-kit story, wouldn't the former police chief clear the matter up? Wouldn't Palin be able to persuade her former police chief to come forward and explain to the press how his comments in the Frontiersman in 2000 were completely taken out of context and that no, of course not, Wasilla never charged the insurance companies of rape victims when Palin was mayor?
Instead, we've heard radio silence from the former police chief, who seems to have no interest in walking back his rape-kit comments from 2000, comments that frustrated bloggers just cannot make disappear.
Stuck with a public statement that leaves no room for ambiguity ("We've charged the cost of the exams to the victim's insurance company when possible"), bloggers clung to the idea that Palin should not be tarred by the rape-kit policy because she had been completely in the dark about it as mayor.
- "She never supported" the policy, claimed Amanda Carpenter, a national political reporter for Townhall.com.
- "There's no evidence Mayor Palin knew about the policy," agreed an outraged Boston Herald columnist.
- "There is not yet any evidence generated that Palin was aware of this policy," announced NRO.
- "She wasn't even aware it was going on," stressed the NewsBusters writer.
Set aside the oddity of Palin's press supporters pushing her candidacy by emphasizing that she apparently had no idea what the town of Wasilla was doing in her name, and focus on this: Unless Palin had no idea what was going on in her own city government and unless she signed budget documents without actually reading them, the claim is plainly false. And that's where conservatives got schooled by a GW junior named Jacob Alperin-Sheriff. Writing for The Huffington Post's Off The Bus, and crossposting at Daily Kos, Alperin-Sheriff posted by far the most specific and factual analysis of the rape-kit story in terms of Palin's role as mayor and the final say she had over the budget.
Combing through Wasilla's budgetary documents, which are posted online, Alperin-Sheriff showed that Palin had clearly signed off on a fiscal-year budget that reduced by three-quarters the amount of money the town set aside annually for rape-kit costs and that the rape-kit reduction was spelled out before the fiscal-year 2000 budget was approved by Mayor Sarah Palin on April 26, 1999.
This week's bottom line: No matter how many times partisans in the GOP press announce the Palin rape-kit story has been "debunked," the central, undisputed facts remain hidden in plain sight for all to see.
It's time for the press to take a closer look.
Correction: This column previously listed the Los Angeles Times among newspapers that had "never written about the rape-kit story" in their news pages. In fact the Los Angeles Times ran an Associated Press article on the topic.