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Sometimes the Internet sheds more heat than light on candidates and campaigns

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 3, 2008 - When Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin takes the stage tonight at the Republican National Convention, she will step into the primetime spotlight less than one week after her surprise selection as John McCain's vice presidential pick - an event that turned her private life into an Internet free-for-all, followed by all-out media frenzy.

"I was just your average hockey mom in Alaska,'' Palin, 44, told supporters Friday at her roll-out rally in Dayton, Ohio.

Not any more.

McCain's announcement spurred the Internet into instant hyper-drive, with searches for photos and specifics on Palin's height, weight and religion. Searches about the unknown Palin jumped ahead of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama by a 4-to-1 margin, reported online researcher Bill Tancer of Hitwise.com in his column on Time magazine's web site. Other popular word searches associated with her name included the word "scandal" and "hot."

While McCain was stressing Palin's reputation as a political maverick and reformer and responding to charges from Democrats that she lacks the experience to be vice president, Internet surfers were googling Palin's husband Todd, discovering that she calls him "first dude'' and that he works in Alaska's oil fields and is a champion snow mobile racer.

They wanted to know about the Palins' five children, including her baby son Trig, born in April with Down syndrome, and how Track, her 19-year-old son who enlisted in the Army on Sept. 11 last year, got his name. Even as media outlets were dispatching reporters to Wasilla, Alaska, the small town where Palin grew up to be mayor, the Internet was being mined for old photos from her high school basketball team and beauty pageant days.

By Sunday evening, an outlandish Internet rumor, apparently started by an anonymous blogger named "Arcxix" on the left-leaning Daily Kos, charged that Palin was pretending to be the mother of her teen daughter's baby. To dispel the growing nastiness, the McCain campaign issued a statement Monday that Palin's 17-year-old daughter is five months pregnant and planning to marry. Pleas by both the McCain and Obama campaigns to honor the privacy of the candidates' children proved as effective as shouting down Hurricane Gustav.

Welcome to Election 2008, where anyone who can google can be an investigative reporter but without the controls of traditional media, such as editors, fact checkers and insistence on multiple sources for information -- and where the traditional media are increasingly pressured to keep up with the Internet, said Robert Cropf, chairman of the department of public policy studies at St. Louis University.

"I believe the more information the better. The danger is in misinformation," Cropf said. "Bloggers can put up whatever they hear from any source. Sometimes, you get a story that is true, but for every one of those stories, there are dozens that aren't true. Who is going to filter that out?"

Anonymous bloggers don't have to play by the rules, Cropf noted, which hastens the pace at which they can post items online. Once the buzz gets going, it takes on a life of its own - and the traditional media pick it up as news because it's what everyone is talking about.

Websites devoted to fact-checking rumors are not enough to stop a rumor in its tracks. Still that hasn't stopped campaigns, such as Barack Obama's, from developing web pages to counter rumors. And nonpartisan groups, such as factcheck.org, scrutinize Democratic and Republican campaign claims. 

Still, Cropf said, the political discussion took a dramatic shift this past weekend from what people should be talking about -- the candidates' records and positions.

"There are many good things about the Internet, but one of the bad things about the Internet is it provides a lot of distractions," Cropf said. "The Internet could add to the political dialogue, but what we're seeing it do more often is create distraction, create an issue from a non-issue.''

The Internet offers an equal-opportunity platform for what Cropf refers to as "an incessant back-and-forth'' between people with opposing viewpoints. The question, of course, is whether voters are swayed by any of it, or simply have their pre-existing views reinforced.

Paulette McFarland of St. Louis, who attended Sunday's McCain-Palin rally in O'Fallon, Mo., said all of the publicity about Palin's personal life has done nothing to change her mind about the candidate but, instead, raises her concerns over the damage such media behavior can have on the country.

McFarland said her initial reaction was that the governor has the experience to be a good vice president and that her knowledge about energy issues would serve the country well. McFarland called Palin's response to her daughter's pregnancy an indication that the candidate stands behind her stated opposition to abortion.

"She is consistent with her beliefs,'' McFarland said. "The problem would have been if she had tried to have her child have an abortion.''

McFarland said she is bothered by speculation regarding Palin's parenting skills.

"It hurts me to see so much coverage about her parenting skills. I don't know what kind of parent she is -- and I'm not going to go there," McFarland said. "I heard someone say, very eloquently, that if we looked at the parenting skills of candidates, Ronald Reagan would never have been elected."

McFarland said the election is one of the most important in the nation's history, and she will vote based upon her concerns over terrorism and the economy.

"The terrorist attack caused the economy to go south, it wasn't President Bush,'' she said.

McFarland, who describes herself as a right-wing conservative Christian, said Palin would have her hands full, juggling her parental responsibilities and the duties of a vice presidency.

"But we'll be praying. Sarah will get support she didn't know she had," McFarland said.

The back-and-forth over Palin's family has not swayed Sherry Tyree, vice president for Women for Faith & Family, a national Catholic women's group based in St. Louis that supports traditional church teachings.

Tyree, who emails a daily online news summary to church leaders, said she was already familiar with Palin.

"My first reaction was 'fantastic.' This is someone who is family-oriented but also capable of dealing in the world,'' Tyree said.

For Tyree, Palin's most important qualification is that she opposes abortion.

"She walks the walk, she doesn't just talk the talk,'' Tyree said.

Tyree said that while other campaign issues come and go, abortion is a constant.

"The big undercurrent to the election is the abortion issue, and I'm grateful she is on the ticket,'' Tyree said.

Tyree believes middle America will respond to Palin's personal story of being a frontier woman and that the publicity over her daughter will settle down, with attention focused once more on criticisms that Palin lacks the experience to assume the presidency.

Cropf said that political campaigns will continue to become more tech-savvy in the future as they look for ways to control the release of information. He predicts that they will rely less on mainstream media, such as Obama's use of text messaging to announce Joe Biden as his running mate. He cited the McCain campaign's attempt to put a favorable spin on the Wikipedia biography of Palin, recognizing that it would be one of the first sources people would go to after the announcement.

"The political campaigns are going to have to become more savvy when it comes to the manipulation, if you will, of the Internet," Cropf said.

And campaigns will learn from the Palin example that negative information can't simply be withheld - because even the folks in faraway Wasilla, Alaska, have the Internet.

"You can't hide anything, and when you try to, it makes it look like you're trying to cover things up," Cropf said. "I think it shows they did not know the power of the medium. They were blindsided by this. Instead of talking about the issues, everyone is talking about this."

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