Should Erik Wemple be attacking Sarah Palin?

According to Erik Wemple, The Washington Post’s new media writer, Sarah Palin is a hypocrite. The former Alaska governor supports abstinence education, yet according to tabloid reporter Joe McGinniss, in 1988 Palin had a one-night stand with a basketball player. Palin was not married at the time, although she was dating Todd Palin. Put all this together, writes Wemple, and Palin is “fair game.” His reasoning: “Hypocrisy is a quality that must be exposed in our political leaders: If Palin backs abstinence-only education and shuns talk of contraception and the like, then we are entitled to know whether her own lifestyle aligned with her rhetoric. And so we’re learning about Palin’s alleged Reagan-era sex life.”

There are two problems with Wemple’s argument. The first is that he got the facts wrong. In one paragraph he claims Palin endorses “abstinence” education. In the next he calls it “abstinence-only.” Which is it? It would have taken Wemple 30 seconds of googling to figure out that Palin supports both sex education and the encouragement of abstinence — that is, she thinks kids should be encouraged to be abstinent but, in case they can’t live up to that, also be given the facts about sex — but in a non-graphic, non-dehumanizing way. That position may seem muddled to liberals, but it’s where most Americans are. They want their kids to have the facts but they also don’t want them to be treated like rutting animals.

Wemple’s bigger problem is his charge of hypocrisy, and the claim that it allows reporters to reveal personal things about politicians, no matter how old the story is. If that’s the case, perhaps we should hold journalists who set themselves up as moral judges to the same standard.

In 1998 I had lunch with Cathy Alter, who’s now a successful book author who has appeared on “The Today Show.” At the time, she was freelancing and had just written a story for The Washington City Paper, where Wemple was an editor. Cathy said that Wemple had changed her story in order to make the subject look bad. This wasn’t the kind of tinkering that editors normally do, asking her to draw out detail or do a rewrite. This was a demolition job that completely flipped the meaning of her story.

Cathy had been sent to interview Jennifer Ringley, a woman who had started broadcasting her life, including her private life, via a webcam. She called her project the “JenniCam.” Cathy told me that she had gone to interview Ringley thinking that she’d be a very troubled person. But instead, Cathy found her to be nice, funny and highly intelligent. She wrote as much in her story.

Then Wemple changed her story to make Ringley seem crazy. According to Cathy, Wemple said that every week The City Paper ran a story on what the editors called “the freak of the week.” It didn’t matter what the facts were; the point was to make the subject look like a freak.

Cathy was furious. She yelled at Wemple, telling him he was publishing fiction. She also objected to Wemple’s descriptions of Ringley as fat. According to Cathy, Wemple replied, “I was fat as a kid and got teased. She’ll get over it.”