The title card from the TV show Peyton Place
While most Alaskans have had their attention focused on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, the state’s Superbowl, the new-media of state politics has engaged an even older sport — mud wrestling.
What started with AlaskaGOP.org putting a toe in the sandbox got down and dirty when Casey Reynolds of Midnight Sun.com leveled the accusation of “slut shaming” in a post since removed from the tubes.
For those not up to the minute on evolving terminology, the Urban Dictionary defines “slut shaming” as “an unfortunate phenomenon in which people degrade or mock a woman because she enjoys having sex, has sex a lot, or may even just be rumored to participate in sexual activity.”
But that’s getting ahead of a story that started with a newsletter e-mailed to about 4,000 Alaska Republicans. GOP communications director Suzanne Downing used that report to take a poke at a legislative staffer in the hunt for the House seat of the late Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, who died unexpectedly in Juneau at age 72.
Downing wrote that the House aide in question had once worked for Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, “whom she labored heavily for.”
Overlooking Downing’s questionable grammar — the sentence really should say “for whom she labored heavily” — Reynolds later went off on a tear about how the reference had to be an allusion to a rumor Wielechowski might have fathered the baby of the unmarried aide.
For those who don’t know, Juneau or more specifically the Capitol in Juneau is Alaska’s little Peyton Place. Some hanky panky goes on there, and even more rumors of hanky panky spread, which is why as many names as possible are going to be left out of this story.
Save them for the Juneau rumor mill, which once you tap into it you will find full of all sorts of juicy stories that may not or may be true. Juneau during the legislative session is a little like a war zone. It cloisters a group of people who think they are doing exciting and important work.
This in turn generates a certain amount of sexual energy and things happen, or they are rumored to happen. People are people. They make up stories, and sometimes they don’t.
Some of America’s finest, Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower among them, fell victim to bad behavior when subject to sexual temptations far from home while in an emotional pressure cooker. It is what is it.
But whatever was or wasn’t going on in Juneau, or was or wasn’t suggested by Downing, Reynolds went a step further to pinpoint specific people and bring into the picture former Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan and previously unpublished rumors involving a one-time radio talk show host.
It made for an interestingly salacious read while at the same time raising some issues about what gets covered, uncovered, or not covered in the strange business we today call news.
It is a business in which the Midnight Sun, a website backed by a Democract money man, and AlaskaGOP.org are now both players.
Strange as that might seem, it is also decidedly true in a world where some general assignment reporters for the old-media have been known to define their jobs by confessing they cover “whatever press release the editor tells” them to cover.
Given the way things work, a PR agency, the Midnight Sun or AlaskaGOP are as likely as any old-media organization, maybe more likely, to break a news story. Whatever a news story is these days.
The definition gets awfully blurry. The Anchorage newspaper not long ago decided the news was a “Facebook feud” between a would-be state Senate candidate and a retiring state senator premised on the idea the retiring senator planned to run for office again.
All of which elevated the dust-up to a pre-election “social media war…brewing between the two Republicans.”
This is the state of the media. Just about all media. Once you get into the tubes, there really isn’t much different between Midnightsunak.com, adn.com, AlaskaGOP.org, KTUU.com, alaskcommons.com and others.
Everybody is vying for eyeballs, and everybody has agendas sometimes obvious and sometimes not.
The days of the news being something somehow magically pulled out of a vat of “objectivity” are over, and that’s probably not a bad thing. I’ve spent my life in the news business, and it’s never been all that objective because it can’t be.
The mere selection of what facts to put into a news story is highly subjective. Some journalists recognize that and try to be fair to that amorphous and shifting thing called “the truth.” Others frankly don’t give a damn.
Once there were some boundaries that defined untouchable subjects, but those boundaries are changing, too.
Downing, with her oblique reference to a Legislative staffer, merely hinted at the sort of thing that used to stay safely hidden behind the barriers. Reynolds, with his blunt attack on Downing and inclusion in the discussion of former Mayor Sullivan and others, ran over the barriers with a bulldozer.
If the past is prologue, expect more of this in the future. With the rise of internet on which anyone can be a journalist (even me!), we appear headed back to the rough and rowdy roots of the business that existed before the invention of hugely expensive off-set presses which limited publishing to the wealthy owners of newspapers.
As Eric Burns wrote in Infamous Scribblers: The Founding Fathers and the Rowdy Beginnings of American Journalism, “newspapers were printed either to indulge the whims of the owner or serve political causes with which he had aligned himself.”
Sounds like the description of a lot of websites, doesn’t it? All that really needs to be changed is the male pronoun.
AlaskaGOP did swipe back at the Midnight Sun in a post quoting Downing saying she was “horrified” (yes, horrified) by Reynolds’ “coarse language” and his attack on her “Jonathon Swift-style satire.”
And there was more, including Party Chairman Peter Goldberg saying, “there are literally hundreds of people who know that I would never think of the things that Casey Reynolds accused me of, much less say them. He has libeled me and I am contemplating suing him for that libel.”
Don’t hold your breath waiting for the lawsuit. It is almost impossible for a public figure in this country to bring a successful legal action against reporting taking place in the arena of journalistic comment and commentary with its many shade of gray.
Midnight Sun did, however, take down its post. Reynolds said in a text this was because he decided on reflection he might have gone too far.
“I was told Bill W. was worried his daughter would Google his name one day and find the story, so I thought about it,” he wrote. ” The story had monster traffic for two days, and the response I received indicated the people who needed to see it saw it. So I felt like taking it down and not having it out there on the web forever was the right thing to do.
“No one told me to. I thought about it and chose to. I stand by that decision.”
Does that mean you won’t read more of these sorts of exchanges going forward? I doubt it. The game appears to have changed in some fundamental ways.
And the operative description for the change might be found in the words of Reynolds: “monster traffic.”