Pretty much wherever she goes on the stump, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin tells voters she killed Alaska's now-infamous "Bridge to Nowhere" in portraying herself as an anti-pork-barrel reformer.
And yet, pretty much every time journalists have compared Palin's record with her rhetoric on that proposed bridge, they've called a foul. The results — whether from CBS News, USA Today, the Anchorage Daily News, NPR or some other outlet — have been remarkably consistent. The surprising thing is how little effect that journalistic fact-checking has had on the campaign trail.
"It is pretty striking that so many news organizations have looked into this independently and come to the same conclusion — that she didn't play that much of a role in ending the bridge," says Bill Adair of the St. Petersburg Times and the Web site PolitiFact.com. "And yet they continue to say it — day in and day out.
"I just hope the voters will stop to take the time to learn what's true and what's not — from us or from some other source — and then make their own judgment," Adair says.
'Thanks, But No Thanks'
Palin, the first-term governor of Alaska, usually offers up a formulation like the one she gave at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn.
"I told Congress, 'Thanks, but no thanks, on that Bridge to Nowhere,' " she told cheering delegates. "If our state wanted to build a bridge, we were going to build it ourselves."
She has repeated it at campaign stops since, as recently as Wednesday, and the anecdote has become a key element of her political biography as the campaign of her running mate, Sen. John McCain, casts her as a reformer in his own image. McCain has consistently opposed projects that are funded through specific earmarks tucked into larger legislation.
"Whether it's killing the Bridge to Nowhere ... or vetoing $500 million in government spending in Alaska over the last two years, she has earned and deserves the title of reformer of her state," says Ben Porritt, a spokesman for the McCain-Palin campaign.
A Complicated Record
Palin's record, however, is more complicated. The bridge involved would have connected the small town of Ketchikan with a sparsely populated island that has an airport. The bridge would have also cost several hundred million dollars. It is true that as governor, in 2007, she announced the project was dead.
But, as McClatchy Newspapers political reporter Margaret Talev says, "She was for it before she was against it — and actively for it before she became actively against it." McClatchy owns the Anchorage Daily News, which has covered Palin's quick ascent in state politics thoroughly.
While running for governor in 2006, Palin said she supported federal funding for the bridge, and she praised the state's two senior lawmakers, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, who were promoting the project.
But it came under national fire, and as Stevens and Young became tainted, political support for the project ebbed. (Stevens is now facing federal charges in a political corruption trial. Both Stevens and Young are battling for re-election.)
Congress dropped the specific designation of the more than $200 million in federal funds for the bridge, instead releasing it for use for any Alaska projects. Palin wanted to direct the money to other projects that would prove less embarrassing. So, according to major news organizations that examined Palin's record, there was no "thanks, but no thanks" moment.
Last Rites For The Bridge
"Even in Alaska, there were a lot of people who were opposed to it. So it's not like she boldly stood up against it," says Adair of the St. Petersburg Times. "What she did was, seeing the political reality, she ended it."
"It's not that she really killed it — but she did perform the last rites," Adair says.
As for the larger issue, as a small-town mayor, Palin hired lobbyists, and as a mayor and governor, she sought such targeted earmarked funds herself. The Associated Press reports that Palin is seeking another $200 million in such projects for Alaska next year.
Adair calls Palin's account of her role in the bridge's demise a "half-truth."
Jack Nelson, the retired Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, has a tarter term for it: "It is a lie," he says.
That's not a word most journalists use, because it is so charged. Nelson says he can use it because he is retired.
"Most of the time in past campaigns, when major news organizations have come out and said that something is totally false, the candidate will drop it," says Nelson, who was a reporter for more than five decades. "In this case, they are repeating it over and over and over."
But with so many other sources of information and opinion online, revelations in mainstream news organizations don't pack the same punch that they once did.
Campaign Defends Palin's Record
Porritt, the McCain-Palin spokesman, says there is no reason to back down.
"There have been a number of distortions about Sarah Palin's record as a reformer," Porritt says. "But this isn't about claiming the title. This is about having a record to back that up."
Porritt points to journalistic site FactCheck.org to prove Palin is telling the truth. But FactCheck.org wrote last week that Palin's line about the bridge is "inaccurate."
In fact, FactCheck.org cited the Bridge to Nowhere first in its list of reasons why it concluded Palin was "short on facts" during her speech at the Republican convention.