Saradise Lost: How Alaska Bloggers Dethroned Sarah Palin

Eric Boehlert

by Eric Boehlert

It turns out that blogger Phil Munger hears all his big, breaking Sarah Palin news in the kitchen of his house, which overlooks Neklason Lake and sits just 10 miles from the center of Wasilla, the Southcentral Alaska town where Palin once served as mayor.

On July 3, Munger, a music professor and former ’60s anti-war activist who started his blog Alaska Progressive in November 2007, was in his kitchen and got gobsmacked by the announcement that Palin was handing over the reins of the state to her No. 2, and doing it for the good of Alaskans.

Munger’s immediate reaction to the stunning news? He emailed me a succinct response: “WTF??!!!”

For Munger, it was déjà vu all over again. Back on August 29, 2008, Munger, again in his kitchen, heard the jaw-dropping news that Palin had been picked as John McCain’s running mate. “She’s just totally unqualified,” was the blogger’s first thought.

Stunned, confused, and more than a bit concerned about an America with Palin in the No. 2 position, Munger immediately blogged it. He wanted to warn people about the newcomer to the national stage, the one he first met in the early ’90s, when she was a 26-year-old serving on the Wasilla Planning Commission; the one who once told him she believed Jesus Christ would be born again in her lifetime. And when Munger sat down to write his first impressions about Palin’s meteoric rise, he opted for an Alaska slang term that described the idyllic frontier realm as depicted by Palin’s most fervent Republican supporters: “Saradise.”

Munger’s blog post was headlined “Saradise Lost,” and in the ensuing days, weeks, and months, he kept adding updates, or chapters, as the fall campaign unfolded, and then as Palin returned to govern Alaska. That was last August. Over the recent July Fourth holiday weekend, Munger completed Book Two of his “Saradise Lost” installment. In total, he’d posted more than 250 Palin chapters.

Now the governor was quitting. While she never said it out loud, it certainly wouldn’t have been a shock if she’d directed a Nixonian parting phrase toward Alaska bloggers: “You’re not going to have Palin to kick around anymore.”

I’m not suggesting that homegrown bloggers alone were responsible for Palin’s “no más” moment, but there’s no question that the online activists played a key role. That with their shit-kicking brand of frontier citizen journalism, they drove Palin to distraction and changed the way voters nationwide thought about the governor. So if conservative bloggers get credit for driving Dan Rather out of the anchor chair in 2004 following their Memogate campaign-season tale, then the band of scrappy liberal bloggers in Alaska ought to be allowed to bask in a bit of glory, because they made their own history when Palin announced her exit.

And the truth is, bloggers didn’t back off after last November’s election. Their dead-on pursuit of the facts continued right through Palin’s awkward farewell bid. As Howard Kurtz noted on CNN’s Reliable Sources on Sunday:

It took some liberal bloggers to poke some holes in some things that Sarah Palin said. For example, she had said that most of the ethics complaints against her in the state of Alaska were filed by Democrats. That’s not true. She said millions of dollars were spent on legal fees defending her, and she felt badly about that. But actually, the figure was less, and these were mostly staff salaries paid to state lawyers who would have been paid anyway.

Indeed, read this utterly thorough dissection of Palin’s tall tale about the cost of ethics complaints for a lesson in what Alaska bloggers have been doing to the governor for the past 10 months. Like a bartender at Wasilla’s Mug-Shot Saloon, Palin keeps setting up the tall tales, and local bloggers keep knocking them down. Again and again and again. (Earlier this year, they helped torpedo Palin’s pick for Alaska attorney general; the nominee was the first in state history not to be confirmed.)

Brandishing dogged reporting skills and wonderfully insightful, entertaining writing, Alaska bloggers turned the 49th state (and a very, very red one, at that) into a hotbed for plugged-in citizen journalism and showed the rest of the liberal blogosphere, as well as media elites, what’s possible when passion and creativity are harnessed online.

Just ask Palin.

And the phenomenon can all be traced back to that morning in late August when word first broke about Palin’s ascension to the national stage. That morning, liberal bloggers at sites like Alaska Progressive, Mudflats, Celtic Diva’s Blue Oasis, Just a Girl From Homer, Kodiak Konfidential, Own The Sidewalk, What Do I Know?, Alaska Real,, and Immoral Minority began tapping away at their keyboards, wearing the same stunned expression that Munger had stuck to his face. They didn’t realize it right then, but within just a matter of days, Alaska bloggers would emerge as one of the most important local newsgathering sources of the entire election season. (Their hit counts also zoomed into the stratosphere.) And collectively, they wrote a new chapter in campaign journalism.

I was so struck by their contributions last year that I profiled them in my recent book, Bloggers on the Bus: How the Internet Changed Politics and the Press. Their groundbreaking work since the election simply confirms their place in Internet history.

In the right place (i.e. far, far away from the Beltway) at the right time and boasting unmatched knowledge about Palin, the bloggers served an invaluable function last year. While major media organizations scrambled to even get reporters to Alaska to start their background reporting on the governor, the bloggers were teeing up all kinds of meaty morsels hour after hour on that weekend the Palin news broke. (If McCain had tapped former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to be his VP, I just don’t think Boston-based bloggers, for instance, would have had the kind of impact on the VP story that Alaska bloggers did.)

Media companies had few bureaus and even fewer political contacts on the ground in Alaska. And the state’s major newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News, just couldn’t cover the sprawling Palin story with the kind of obsessive detail that bloggers could; the daily couldn’t satisfy the tidal wave of Lower 48 interest in Palin, so bloggers jumped in and started pumping out information and impressions about their governor.

The Bridge to Nowhere, Troopergate (which bloggers Andrew Halcro and Linda Kellen Biegel helped break during the summer of 2008), Wasilla’s Palin-era policy on making rape victims and their insurance companies pay for test kits, Palin’s unorthodox religious beliefs, her previous love affair with federal earmarks, her anti-science beliefs, and her dubious claim of being “commander in chief” of the Alaska National Guard. It was like a smorgasbord. And quite simply, for long stretches of time, the Alaska bloggers owned the Palin story, as they did their best to paint an accurate picture of the new VP candidate for the rest of the world, a picture that didn’t always mesh with the mavericky picture presented by the press.