(Updated April 8, 2011 to include a copy of Professor Scharlott’s paper)
A Northern Kentucky University professor’s research about how the news media handled rumors of a pregnancy hoax by former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin has gotten a spirited response from her former spokesman.
In his paper “Palin, the Press, and the Fake Pregnancy Rumor,” associate journalism professor Brad Scharlott explores how the press handled the rumor that Trig Palin may not actually be the son of Sarah Palin, asserting that there was enough evidence of a pregnancy hoax to warrant asking more questions.
“[There’s] a theory out of mass communications that ideas not in the mainstream can be squeezed out of the public sphere entirely,” Scharlott said. “I think that’s what happened with the idea that Palin may have faked the pregnancy and now, while some people may privately speak about it, no one in America wants to be quoted about it.”
Once Scharlott completed his research, he said he submitted a copy to Bill McAllister, who is currently the communications director for the Alaska Department of Law and had previously served as the communications director for Sarah Palin during her vice-presidential bid in 2008.
“[In the paper,] I suggest that he was in fact, possibly, involved in a hoax,” Scharlott said.
“In the spirit of fairness, I thought he should get a copy. That’s what journalists normally do.”
But McAllister, who was a reporter before becoming Palin’s spokesman, said Scharlott is trying to connect two things that have nothing to do with each other.
In his research, Scharlott indicates that Palin may have hired McAllister because he caught on to the pregnancy hoax rumor, but McAllister maintains he never knew anything of the rumor until she announced her vice-presidential bid.
After sending his research to McAllister, Scharlott said he was not expecting what came next.
“If we ever meet, I’ll slap you,” McAllister wrote in an email to Scharlott on April 5. “In a different era, I’d challenge you to a duel.”
McAlliser’s email continued, calling Scharlott a “scoundrel” and “despicable.” He then forwarded his response to Scharlott to five other members of the Communications Department, with the subject line “Brad Scharlott disgraces your university.”
“He should be fired, frankly,” McAllister said. “I can’t believe [the] university is going to let some idiot present a paper [like this.]”
McAllister is quick to point out, both in his emails and over the phone, that he is, in no way, speaking on behalf of the Alaska Department of Law, but as “someone who is demeaned and lied about in this paper.” Emails obtained by The Northerner were sent to and from his personal email account, and he said he spoke to reporters on his lunch break.
“I had never even heard a rumor [about this] until she was chosen by McCain, then that weekend all kinds of shit came out that no one had heard before,” McAllister said. “[Scharlott’s research] defames me and I’m just not having it.”
McAllister said that after he sent the emails to other members of NKU’s communication department, Scharlott responded to him again, this time telling McAllister that he “made a deal with the devil.”
“That blows any pretense that he’s objective or fair,” McAllister said. “It proves it is not academic rigor but vitriol.”
McAllister said he found many factual errors in the paper when he read it, such as incorrect call letters to TV stations, and facts taken out of context.
“He doesn’t come out and say it, but he is implying there is some link between the story about Trig [Paxton Van Palin] and my being hired by her,” McAllister said. “The two things have nothing to do with her. She hired me because I was the best known politics reporter in the state of Alaska.”
McAllister said he denied the charges on behalf of Palin because he was her spokesman, not because he had any role in a pregnancy hoax. He said the only part he played during Palin’s pregnancy was that of a reporter.
“Aside from interviewing her in her office when she came back to work, I had nothing to do with it,” McAllister said. “I had nothing to do with her personal life.”
Scharlott said McAllister should have responded to the research in a different way.
“If I were him, I would have tried to have been cool and calm and try to explain away in a cool and calm way what ever seemed to indicate that he was part of the hoax,” Scharlott said. “He was wildly swinging out trying to make me look bad any way he could, but he didn’t really think through what he was doing really well, or he doesn’t really understand what universities are about.”
McAllister said he normally would not have bothered responding to Scharlott, saying there are “nuts all over.”
“But he implicated me in it, and i’m just not going to stand for that,” McAllister said. “I worked in journalism for 30 years, and I have a reputation for honesty, and I’m not going to have it besmirched.”
Scharlott said he first became interested in the pregnancy hoax rumor after Palin was nominated as a vice-presidential candidate, and said he was fascinated that no one from McCain’s camp chose to rebut the rumor.
In his paper, Scharlott says that the “oddness of the McCain’s campaign response to the fake birth rumors should have caused reporters, ostensibly skeptical by training and nature, to wonder if something was amiss.”
Scharlott asserts that this topic is relevant because Palin is still saying she may decide to run in the upcoming presidential election, “because if Palin has lied about the pregnancy, it says a lot about her character, her fitness for the presidency, and maybe even her mental health.”
But McAllister continues defend himself from allegations of a hoax.
“The burden of proof ought to be on him,” McAllister said. “He said I attempted to pull a hoax on the American Public. He should have to prove that.”
Scharlott defended his research, saying he did not explicitly accuse anyone of being involved in a hoax.
“I’m saying its possible, maybe even likely, there has been a hoax, but I am not saying its proved.” Scharlott said. “The ball is in their court to provide some proof.”
McAllister is leaving his position after this week to go back into journalism, and he said his departure from the Attorney General’s office has nothing to do with Scharlott’s research. McAllister said he was not aware of Scharlott’s research until Monday, the day after the Anchorage Daily News leaked that he is leaving the Attorney General’s office.
Scharlott has submitted his research for publication and to present it at an academic event, but it has not yet been accepted.
Read Brad Scharlott’s paper here:
Story by Cassie Stone and Jesse Call