Media Cooking the Books on Palin

ANCHORAGE -- The breathless accounts of Mayor Palin banning books in Wasilla are based on disputed versions of two meetings, and almost certainly overblown. There was a discussion over the library policy at the time, but it was not public and may well have been a perfectly proper inquiry into procedures for handling complaints. Other supposed witnesses to the event are not credible, and there is readily available evidence supporting Ms. Palin's version which is not being reported.

First, some background:

Sarah Palin began her political career when she was elected to the Wasilla City Council in October, 1992, as a "progressive" supporter of Mayor John Stein and his proposals to implement a sales tax and fund a city police department.
The local semi-weekly Frontiersman supported their efforts.

In December, 1993, a book challenge at the Big Lake library made front page news in the Frontiersman. Mat-Su Library Board member Shelley Ax filed a complaint over Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen:

Ax said she did not want the book, which has won literary awards and is considered a classic, banned from the library, but taken from the library's easy reader section or identified as a book which contains nudity. [. . .]

"I feel that is a little bit too much," said Ax, who was shown the book by her youngest daughter. "'Mom, look there is nude boy in here,' . . .

The complaint had been filed in October, and a library panel of six members had unanimously agreed the book should neither be labeled nor removed from the easy reader section. However, the challenge highlighted the need for a formal process, and participation by the Library Board (whose vice-chair's complaint had been unanimously rejected).  That may have been an issue for Councilwoman Palin -- for whom government accountability is a recurring theme -- but nothing she had to say about it is preserved for posterity, though later statements agree she was aware of the incident.

Three years later there was a contentious election for mayor in Wasilla. Mayor Stein still had loyal supporters, but there had been discussions of term limits and questions about his vision for growth, and an effort to replace him with a city manager that had been defeated the year before. Ms. Palin decided to run for Mayor, citing the disputes over the direction of the city's future expansion and responsiveness of government. In a response to a Frontiersman candidates forum, she listed "indifference" as the first issue the city faced, and cited city hall's "complacency" and "stale leadership" throughout local government. The five city department heads wrote a letter to the editor in response, supporting Mayor Stein and redirecting criticism back at Ms. Palin. City voters apparently agreed with Palin, electing her to the office of Mayor on October 1, 1996.

Upon taking office, Mayor Palin requested letters of resignation from all five department heads (who, per municipal code, served at the pleasure of the mayor... and in fact at one time the code had required a new mayor to replace them), and said she would decide which to keep. Police Chief Stambaugh claimed a special case, because he had a contract signed with the previous Mayor stating he could only be fired for cause. Mayor Palin fired him anyway (his subsequent lawsuit was thrown out, the federal judge ruling Palin's interpretation correct), and fired but rehired the Librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons.

The first claims of censorship appear in a Frontiersman article written by Paul Stuart in December 1996. In it, Ms. Emmons is quoted in what appears to be unequivocal claims of censorship attempts by Mayor Palin. There is also discussion of the book challenge procedure (and the Big Lake challenge three years prior), but a claim that wasn't what she (Mayor Palin) meant.

However, Mary Ellen Emmons wrote a contemporaneous article in the AK Library Association newsletter (the Newspoke), which doesn't contain the words "censorship" or "book banning" or even anything very close. What it does contain is a discussion about politics:

When Ms. Palin was elected, she met with all the department heads and expressed concern as to whether we would be able to support her administration, given our visible support of the previous mayor. I had occasion to meet Mayor Palin individually. We discussed library operations and my role in her administration. It was a candid and positive meeting, and we agreed to put the campaign behind us and get back to work.

The closest to the censorship discussion is this:

[. . .]I had a chance to field an assortment of questions from Mayor Palin and the Deputy Administrator concerning access to information, materials selection guidelines, and plans for the future.

Most importantly, I was reminded that the hat I wear as Library Director is different from the hat I wear as a citizen. While I may support particular candidates, the neutrality of the library program should never be compromised. The new Mayor and others in the community needed to be reassured that I could manage the library without a personal political agenda.

It's difficult to reconcile these two versions, and made even more problematic by the tone of other stories written in the Frontiersman at the time. The paper had been very supportive of Mayor Stein, and was extremely critical of Mayor Palin, especially during the period in question. Mr. Stuart authored more than one.

Other witness statements are even more problematic. Anne Kilkenny claims to have been present during one of the discussions (at a city council meeting), but that does not match either witness (Palin and Emmons), or explain why there weren't other reports from the council members present (at least one of whom was organizing a mayoral recall effort at the time, and whose silence would've been inexplicable). Howard Bess (a pastor with a regular column in the Frontiersman) claims his book Pastor I am Gay was involved in the discussion.  But there's no record of his book ever being challenged (though there were contemporaneous stories of local bookstores declining to carry it after they'd received complaints from unnamed citizens), and no record of Palin ever mentioning it.

This issue is not easily resolved, and made worse by poor news coverage. Mary Emmons's contemporary statement was readily available.  The absence of any "book banning" discussion in an explanation to fellow librarians casts serious doubt on the only credible claim of attempted censorship.  Various lists of books to be banned are outright fabrications. Many stories contain innuendo that is false or misleading. For example, a recent AP article lends credence to Kilkenny and Bess, and claims no book was challenged "in the 10 years before Palin took office," implying her spokesman was lying. In fact, even the initial Frontiersman article cites the Big Lake branch challenge (though both got the date wrong).

The bottom line is that this is a she-said/she-said with ample motive for shading the truth. Emmons faced dismissal for political reasons that predate the censorship claims, and her later contradictory statements cast her accusations into doubt. Similarly Ms. Palin could not be expected to admit an effort to censor books, had it actually happened, but the fact that she brought it up in an unrelated interview suggests she thought it proper.  But in any event, the picture painted of rabid religious conservatives banding together to ban books is clearly not supported.  Twelve years on, it's difficult to guess exactly what happened. But absent some new evidence, there's not much "there" there.
ANCHORAGE -- The breathless accounts of Mayor Palin banning books in Wasilla are based on disputed versions of two meetings, and almost certainly overblown. There was a discussion over the library policy at the time, but it was not public and may well have been a perfectly proper inquiry into procedures for handling complaints. Other supposed witnesses to the event are not credible, and there is readily available evidence supporting Ms. Palin's version which is not being reported.

First, some background:

Sarah Palin began her political career when she was elected to the Wasilla City Council in October, 1992, as a "progressive" supporter of Mayor John Stein and his proposals to implement a sales tax and fund a city police department.
The local semi-weekly Frontiersman supported their efforts.

In December, 1993, a book challenge at the Big Lake library made front page news in the Frontiersman. Mat-Su Library Board member Shelley Ax filed a complaint over Maurice Sendak's In the Night Kitchen:

Ax said she did not want the book, which has won literary awards and is considered a classic, banned from the library, but taken from the library's easy reader section or identified as a book which contains nudity. [. . .]

"I feel that is a little bit too much," said Ax, who was shown the book by her youngest daughter. "'Mom, look there is nude boy in here,' . . .

The complaint had been filed in October, and a library panel of six members had unanimously agreed the book should neither be labeled nor removed from the easy reader section. However, the challenge highlighted the need for a formal process, and participation by the Library Board (whose vice-chair's complaint had been unanimously rejected).  That may have been an issue for Councilwoman Palin -- for whom government accountability is a recurring theme -- but nothing she had to say about it is preserved for posterity, though later statements agree she was aware of the incident.

Three years later there was a contentious election for mayor in Wasilla. Mayor Stein still had loyal supporters, but there had been discussions of term limits and questions about his vision for growth, and an effort to replace him with a city manager that had been defeated the year before. Ms. Palin decided to run for Mayor, citing the disputes over the direction of the city's future expansion and responsiveness of government. In a response to a Frontiersman candidates forum, she listed "indifference" as the first issue the city faced, and cited city hall's "complacency" and "stale leadership" throughout local government. The five city department heads wrote a letter to the editor in response, supporting Mayor Stein and redirecting criticism back at Ms. Palin. City voters apparently agreed with Palin, electing her to the office of Mayor on October 1, 1996.

Upon taking office, Mayor Palin requested letters of resignation from all five department heads (who, per municipal code, served at the pleasure of the mayor... and in fact at one time the code had required a new mayor to replace them), and said she would decide which to keep. Police Chief Stambaugh claimed a special case, because he had a contract signed with the previous Mayor stating he could only be fired for cause. Mayor Palin fired him anyway (his subsequent lawsuit was thrown out, the federal judge ruling Palin's interpretation correct), and fired but rehired the Librarian, Mary Ellen Emmons.

The first claims of censorship appear in a Frontiersman article written by Paul Stuart in December 1996. In it, Ms. Emmons is quoted in what appears to be unequivocal claims of censorship attempts by Mayor Palin. There is also discussion of the book challenge procedure (and the Big Lake challenge three years prior), but a claim that wasn't what she (Mayor Palin) meant.

However, Mary Ellen Emmons wrote a contemporaneous article in the AK Library Association newsletter (the Newspoke), which doesn't contain the words "censorship" or "book banning" or even anything very close. What it does contain is a discussion about politics:

When Ms. Palin was elected, she met with all the department heads and expressed concern as to whether we would be able to support her administration, given our visible support of the previous mayor. I had occasion to meet Mayor Palin individually. We discussed library operations and my role in her administration. It was a candid and positive meeting, and we agreed to put the campaign behind us and get back to work.

The closest to the censorship discussion is this:

[. . .]I had a chance to field an assortment of questions from Mayor Palin and the Deputy Administrator concerning access to information, materials selection guidelines, and plans for the future.

Most importantly, I was reminded that the hat I wear as Library Director is different from the hat I wear as a citizen. While I may support particular candidates, the neutrality of the library program should never be compromised. The new Mayor and others in the community needed to be reassured that I could manage the library without a personal political agenda.

It's difficult to reconcile these two versions, and made even more problematic by the tone of other stories written in the Frontiersman at the time. The paper had been very supportive of Mayor Stein, and was extremely critical of Mayor Palin, especially during the period in question. Mr. Stuart authored more than one.

Other witness statements are even more problematic. Anne Kilkenny claims to have been present during one of the discussions (at a city council meeting), but that does not match either witness (Palin and Emmons), or explain why there weren't other reports from the council members present (at least one of whom was organizing a mayoral recall effort at the time, and whose silence would've been inexplicable). Howard Bess (a pastor with a regular column in the Frontiersman) claims his book Pastor I am Gay was involved in the discussion.  But there's no record of his book ever being challenged (though there were contemporaneous stories of local bookstores declining to carry it after they'd received complaints from unnamed citizens), and no record of Palin ever mentioning it.

This issue is not easily resolved, and made worse by poor news coverage. Mary Emmons's contemporary statement was readily available.  The absence of any "book banning" discussion in an explanation to fellow librarians casts serious doubt on the only credible claim of attempted censorship.  Various lists of books to be banned are outright fabrications. Many stories contain innuendo that is false or misleading. For example, a recent AP article lends credence to Kilkenny and Bess, and claims no book was challenged "in the 10 years before Palin took office," implying her spokesman was lying. In fact, even the initial Frontiersman article cites the Big Lake branch challenge (though both got the date wrong).

The bottom line is that this is a she-said/she-said with ample motive for shading the truth. Emmons faced dismissal for political reasons that predate the censorship claims, and her later contradictory statements cast her accusations into doubt. Similarly Ms. Palin could not be expected to admit an effort to censor books, had it actually happened, but the fact that she brought it up in an unrelated interview suggests she thought it proper.  But in any event, the picture painted of rabid religious conservatives banding together to ban books is clearly not supported.  Twelve years on, it's difficult to guess exactly what happened. But absent some new evidence, there's not much "there" there.