On Fact Checking and Sarah Palin and Book Banning

Hi. A lot has gone on since I posted the thread linking to the Time Magazine article about Sarah Palin. I would like to explain some things to possibly staunch the flow of emails I have gotten asking me about Comment Eleven, the supposed list of books Palin wanted to ban. That list is not in any way linked to Sarah Palin. Sarah Palin did not ban any books. She did, however, have many interactions with the Wasila librarian concerning the library’s collection and possible censorship/challenges/banning. Specific information about titles has not made it to any media report I’ve read and probably won’t. The librarian was fired, reinstated and ultimately resigned much later but not necessarily because of that incident. She is still a librarian in Alaska.

That information comes from the New York Times, ABC news and factcheck.org. There is a lot of misinformation about this entire situation and very few concrete facts. The list of books can be found other places on the Internet, and most recently on Snopes. Please go to Snopes if you need a site on the Internet to send people to who are still sending you that list.

Now, let’s look at what we do know. I actually got an email from the guy who left that comment on my blog. I’ve removed his last name because he asked me to. It would be easy enough to find elsewhere. Please do not repost it here. His assertion is that someone at his school was playing a trick on him leaving that comment and his email address. I verified that he lived in the same place where the IP address of the comment came from. I made him friend me on Facebook so that I was certain the person who sent me the email was in fact the person (or at least had an identical name and email address) who left the comment. The man on Facebook is a real person and if this is some sort of nefarious scheme, it’s a dense and complicated one. I think it’s just a weird throwaway comment that happened at an exact time and place to gain traction and become a big deal.

I think I followed decent procedures both commenting multiple times in-thread and leaving a disclaimer on my original post that I didn’t think the list was accurate. Other people commented similarly in the thread as well. But you know what? People don’t read comments. Many of them didn’t read the post before or after I’d amended it. Or, they got the list over email, see it attributed to librarian.net and wrote me an email asking did I write it or was it accurate? I wrote back to every single person who asked me this (including people you may have heard of, interestingly enough) saying that there was no truth to the list and giving some backstory. The question I ask myself was and is: where does my responsibility for this begin and end? It was clear by the comments and the email I received that many people didn’t think I went far enough. I got at least a few SHAME ON YOU emails and comments from both sides of the Palin debates. I find those sorts of emails and comments disturbing.

Not that it matters particularly, but this weekend was also my birthday.

I’ve also been keeping an eye on several Palin threads where I work at MetaFilter (one with well over 4000 comments), so I simply didn’t have more time and attention to give to this thread on my blog and I closed the comments. I also created a comment policy of a sort, to give me a better leg to stand on if there’s a runaway thread like that in the future. My basic policy is as follows: I will not edit or delete other people’s comments (unless there’s a privacy or stalking-type issue) at the request of another reader. I may delete comments that are off-topic, abusive or just plain crazy. I’m fine with people disagreeing with me or other commenters. I’m less fine with people using my blog as a place to post anti-topic screeds and/or harass and insult other readers or me.

So, I encourage people who are still interested in the topic to find a place on the Internet that makes them happy and go find people to talk to about this topic. I’ll be leaving comments open here unless this thread just fills up with more PALIN SUCKS/OBAMA SUCKS type of talk. There are two librarian-oriented sites out there about Palin: Librarians Against Palin and Librarians For Palin that I would suggest keeping an eye on in the meantime.

I think this topic generally is important, but I don’t want to turn this blog into a political shouting match. I’d encourage you all to do your own research, impart your findings as honestly as you can, and be prepared when new information may come out that changes the way the playing field looks to you. It’s going to be a long few months in the US and we could use good fact-checking more than ever. Thanks, in a general sense, for all your attention.

24 thoughts on “On Fact Checking and Sarah Palin and Book Banning

  1. Maybe I’m odd but I don’t believe *anything* I read on the Internet unless I can get some supporting facts from other web sites. This includes CNN, FoxNews, etc. Too many times, a reputable news source takes something that’s not true and runs with it. I suppose, I’m saying, it sounds like you went above and beyond with the information you had and some people simply didn’t do their leg work. The whole Internet should come with a giant “Buyer Beware” sticker.

    – Of course, I believe *everything* I read on *this* site! :-)

  2. jessamyn, thanks for being gracious and open and apolitical about this entire discussion. I think all people, especially librarians, need to become best friends or at least very familiar with sites like snopes and factcheck to confirm/debunk rumors. Thanks again for handling this explosive situation in such a calm manner. I hope people on all sides will see that.

  3. Thank you for this respectful and responsible post. You are a credit to our profession.

  4. I had already read the stuff where people posted the list and knew it wasn’t real. My dad was a school administrator and every year people would come to him with some of the books on that list and demand that they be taken off the shelves. He always said “no” and he also sat on a library board later on. So I was very savvy that the list was just a general list of books that are commonly asked to be banned, having heard about it at my dinner table. Plus I read the news stories and determined the facts for myself. I hate fanatics on both sides of the coin, and I wish they would all go to a bit mudpit like the one down at Salisbury Beach and duke it out and leave the rest of us alone.

    And by the way… it’s your birthday again in what, 359 days? So a very merry unbirthday, to you! To you!

  5. Quickly,
    1) you rock
    2) happy frikin’ b-day, Virgo!!! (i’m a Leo, actually, but i can dig the virgo vibe)
    3) this could make for a *fascinating* talk about the nature of comments on blogs. i address the “you must come back” part in a ce class i teach for Simmons, but there still is this weird idea that blogs are *interactive*. not so much, i say. they are timely snapshots, but they won’t chase you down as they change, will they?

  6. I think you’ve handled this as responsibly as possible — yes, this particular comment was inflammatory, and probably sent in the heat of the moment in order to fuel the flame, but that’s the beauty and detriment of the blog format — dialogue sometimes comes at a price, and that means giving over control, at least to a degree, on how the conversation evolves. This is a compelling example of this, and I appreciate your discussion of it after the fact. (Agree with above commenter — this would make for an interesting paper on the blogging format!)

    p.s. Happy Birthday;-)

  7. Happy Birthday, Jessamyn! You don’t look a day over twenty-five! Happy birthday! :)

  8. Jessamyn,

    I was so impressed with the way you touched on the issue from the get go. Rather than jump to a conclusion, you presented information clearly and without bias. It’s unfortunate that so many made a snap judgment based on very little evidence and not a lot of fact checking. In a class I’m taking, we are encouraged to share news items on current events which affect the library and information science field and I chose to link to your original post because I appreciated the fair way that you presented the issue.

    Before I forget, Happy Birthday!

  9. At the risk of repeating the sentiments expressed above, I thought this post was a great example of the ethical and diligent way you go about your writing on librarian.net. Hang in there, and keep it up!

  10. I think your responsibility stopped at editing the post, honestly, and maybe at closing the comments. But responding to all of the e-mails and linking to Snopes in this post was taking it the extra mile. Way to be all librarian and go out of your way to provide the right information. (Yes, I just adjectived that noun.)

    Happy belated birthday!

  11. Amazing follow up. I want to be you when I grow up…

  12. What a great and gracious post, Jessamyn.
    Happy birthday!

  13. What a hurricane! I’m very impressed with how you’ve handled it.

  14. Jessamyn: Happy birthday!

    It’s disappointing that neither the “Librarians against Palin” website nor the “Librarians for Palin” website identify the people running them. The “for” website looks more like Astroturf than grassroots.

  15. NYT article today,9/16/08,”Once Elected, Palin Hired Friends and Lashed Foes”

    “But in 1995, Ms. Palin, then a city councilwoman, told colleagues that she had noticed the book “Daddy’s Roommate” on the shelves and that it did not belong there, according to Ms. Chase and Mr. Stein. Ms. Chase read the book, which helps children understand homosexuality, and said it was inoffensive; she suggested that Ms. Palin read it.

    “Sarah said she didn’t need to read that stuff,” Ms. Chase said. “It was disturbing that someone would be willing to remove a book from the library and she didn’t even read it.”

    “I’m still proud of Sarah,” she added, “but she scares the bejeebers out of me.”

  16. I’m one of those people who wrote you on 9/5 asking you to place a disclaimer at the top of the post itself (not just at the top of the blog entry). Given that you had already written your comment, and I wasn’t asking you to remove anything, there was no question of censorship AT ALL here, it was just a question of placing the comment you had already written (not changing a word) on a different place on the page, where people had a much greater chance of seeing it. As I wrote you that day, I had come upon your blog because other sites were linking to THAT SPECIFIC comment on your post, not to the post in general, and so the only way they would ever see your disclaimer is if they read the entire (still lengthening) web page. It was clear, I wrote you, that the people who were linking to that comment on that page were not doing so, so the misinformation was poised to rapidly proliferate.

    Alas, this is what happened — if you go back and read subsequent comments to that blog post of yours, you see all sorts of people are (unfairly) citing YOUR BLOG as part of some vast unfounded smear campaign against Palin. The fact she inquired seriously about banning books at all, was quickly lost in the “outrage” of people that your blog page contained a clearly inaccurate information, with no clear (easy to find) refutation in it. As I wrote you on 9/5 (my son’s birthday too, by the way), I’d seen this before (e.g. the falsified document in the Bush Natl Guard story obscured a lot of valid information and points), and I knew what would happen next.

    You ask where your responsibility begins and ends. Unfortunately, like many people in life, you must be responsible not only for your actions, but others who you somehow enable (whether it be parent with kids, mangers with employees, principals with teachers, etc). If someone you are responsible for makes an error, you have to address it. Just as when you accept a job to be a principal, or decide to become a parent, I believe when you choose to host a blog, you accept some responsibility for whether ANY content on it contributes or detracts from truth in societal debate. Again, I did not ask you to censor at all, I just asked you to make your already-existing disclaimer more prominent, because I knew many people were never seeing it. This is not that different than a principal having to make an official censure of a teacher committing an ethical violation: it’s not enough to just make the statement of censure, it must be done in a way that people actually are likely to HEAR it.

    For what it’s worth. Even if you don’t agree with all that, I was actually not appealing to you legalistic interpretation of “responsibility” anyway — I was hoping that you had a sense of duty towards seeing truth prevail over deceit, elevated discussion of facts prevail over exchanged accusations of political smears, so I hoped you would be self-motivated to take the necessary extra step in THAT spirit. That seems to be very akin to the mission of libraries. So I hoped the whole discussion of “responsibility” would never have to come up.

  17. Mark — it’s impossible to both have a popular blog and be able to control the ripple effects of that blog. The larger internet is not made up of children or people with whom I have any sort of oversight or supervisory role as in your examples. My general feeling is that anyone who can figure out how to permalink a comment on a blog can also read the post it’s attached to, and that’s where my very visible disclaimer was. There is no way people could see the comment and not see all the other comments surrounding it — there was no way it appeared on a page by itself.

    I was hoping that you had a sense of duty towards seeing truth prevail over deceit, elevated discussion of facts prevail over exchanged accusations of political smears, so I hoped you would be self-motivated to take the necessary extra step in THAT spirit.

    I do, and I think I took the necessary steps as I outlined in this post. You clearly disagree.

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