When Sarah Palin was being panned in the press for her combative speech after the Tucson shootings, there was a striking silence.
No journalist quoted a spokesman as defending the former governor, or a “source close to Palin” explaining the strategy. No unnamed insiders were cited as responding to the critics. As is so often the case with Palin’s small and tight-knit circle, its members simply didn’t engage with what she derides as the “lamestream” media.
But there was one exception, if you knew where to look. “Politicizing this is repulsive,” Rebecca Mansour wrote on her Twitter page. Mansour, a staffer for SarahPAC, Palin’s political organization, also said on Tammy Bruce’s radio show that the group’s much-criticized map targeting Democratic candidates—including Gabrielle Giffords—was never intended to be marked with “gun sights.”
A Lebanese American who grew up in Michigan, Mansour, who is in her mid-thirties, is a former Hollywood screenwriter who felt so strongly about Palin—whom she’d never met—that she founded the website Conservatives4Palin. Originally hired to help with Palin’s famous Facebook page, Mansour says on her Twitter feed that she is speaking only for herself. But she whacks Palin’s detractors with such thumb-in-the-eye passion as to make her boss seem downright diplomatic.
There are the “puppy-kickers” and “porn producers” at Politico. The “liar” at the Associated Press who said Palin provided no press access on her visit to Haiti except for Fox News. The “semi-literate buffoons at MSNBC.” The “mouth-breathing loon” Aaron Sorkin. The Maureen Dowd column that chided Palin for shooting a caribou on her TLC show that was “so stupid I thought it came from The Onion.”
There is more, plenty more: The “ridiculous HuffPo piece” on Palin’s Alaska record. The “false assumptions” by a Mediaite blogger “in your latest Palin rant.” The “goofy” Alaska blogger who suffers from “Palin derangement.” A mildly positive Time cover story, which included an email interview with Palin, drew this retort: “ Every other line in this Time piece gibberish.”
Mansour accused The Daily Beast’s Shushannah Walshe, co-author of a book about Palin, of “complete and utter nonsense” and “taking passages totally out of context” after excerpts of Palin’s latest book were leaked—charges that Walshe disputed in a Twitter dialogue with Mansour.
“Their team doesn’t reach out to us unless they’re completely and absolutely angry about something,” says NBC’s Chuck Todd. “It’s like dealing with a billionaire CEO or controlled access to a celebrity.”
Local television operations have also come under Mansour’s withering gaze. The ABC station in Phoenix that covered the flap over Bristol Palin on Dancing With the Stars: “Totally false & unprofessional. Apologize & retract.” The CBS station in Anchorage, where reporters were caught on tape denigrating Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller: “KTVA is an utter joke. I always felt their news shows looked like they were run by a high school a/v class. Pathetic.”
Not that Mansour is always negative: “Brit Hume's documentary on the American conservative movement is excellent.” And she likes the Republican congresswoman from Minnesota, writing after an appearance on Chris Matthews’ Hardball: “BTW, it was flat out awesome to see @ MicheleBachmann do a proverbial victory lap on MSNBC on Tues night. How's that tingle, Chris?”
In fairness, Mansour is sometimes responding to strong, harsh, or inaccurate criticism of Palin. On the phone, for journalists who manage to reach her, Mansour can be friendly, personable, and funny. Even her online barbs are sometimes laced with humorous overstatement. But her us-against-them mentality seems to provide a window on the worldview of a politician, both loved and loathed, who often acts like she is under siege.
Mansour did not respond to requests for comment. Some of those familiar with Palin’s operation say she doesn’t want others speaking for her, at least for now, and feels she gets hammered whether she attempts to explain herself or not. But for a potential presidential candidate to have no apparatus for massaging the media is remarkable. Journalists have difficulty getting answers to even the most basic questions. It’s no secret that Palin prefers her communication unfiltered—and to chat with such friendly Fox questioners as Sean Hannity—but her aides’ lack of engagement with the Fourth Estate is harder to grasp.
“We have a couple of people around her who are in regular touch with her, but it’s not the easiest thing in the world,” says Chuck Todd, the NBC correspondent and political director. “Their team doesn’t reach out to us unless they’re completely and absolutely angry about something… It’s like dealing with a billionaire CEO or controlled access to a celebrity.”
Todd sees this detached approached as “doomed to failure. You can ‘lamestream media’ all you want. I’ve come across plenty of politicians who believe they can go around the mainstream media, but they all realize it’s much more difficult than it looks.”
Chris Cillizza, who writes The Fix column for The Washington Post, has no direct pipeline. “Most political reporters monitor Sarah Palin’s Facebook site and Twitter page for news,” he says. “I don’t know any other avenue by which to communicate with her that she responds to, or with her team. There aren’t the sorts of people around her who are around Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty.” The result, says Cillizza, is that “she can dictate the terms of the conversation, but she can be misinterpreted.”
A couple of Palin advisers are sympathetic to the complaints and try to help, even as they are overwhelmed by the volume of requests. But they also dismiss some of the journalists as whiners who seem to think they have a constitutional right to have Palin cooperate with their hit piece.
Palin defended her use of a phrase, closely associated with an old anti-Semitic charge against Jews, in her video denouncing journalists and pundits for attempting to tie her to the Tucson shootings. “I don't know how the heck they would know if whether I did or didn't know the term ‘blood libel,’ nobody has ever asked me,” she said. But that’s the point: How could any journalist ask her when there’s no one to respond to their questions?
By default, the sort-of-spokesman role falls to Mansour. “Rebecca Mansour is kind of the gatekeeper here,” says Amanda Coyne, co-founder of the site Alaska Dispatch. “Every official question I ask her, she tends not to answer. It’s such a strange way to communicate. It’s so bizarre.” But Coyne, who has both bantered with Mansour and felt her sting online, adds: “She challenges me a little bit. She keeps me a little more honest.”
Matthew Continetti, a Weekly Standard reporter and the author of The Persecution of Sarah Palin, calls Mansour “a new model of spokesperson—very new-media-oriented and much more combative than any typical spokesperson. That world has become something of a black box—every so often it releases a particle of information.”
When Mansour launched Conservatives4Palin, says Continetti, “it became the go-to place for Palin sympathizers and fans on the Internet.”
Indeed, Mansour is as devoted to Palin as a family member. That may help explain why she sometimes picks apart even neutral or fair stories about the former governor.
In a rare interview, Mansour told Robert Draper of The New York Times Magazine last year that she first got involved when another aide invited her to do volunteer work on Palin’s memoir Going Rogue. She was later hired as a paid staffer, with the article describing her as “Palin's primary speechwriter, researcher, online communications coordinator, and all-purpose adviser.”
“I love it when they underestimate her,” Mansour told Draper.
Every politician carps about coverage, but Mansour views some journalists as not even attempting to get it right. After a false report that the former vice-presidential nominee had a hairdresser accompany her to Haiti, Mansour wrote: “This is why Palin calls them ‘lame’: They're dishonest, unprofessional, biased, manipulative ideologues who make stuff up.” When Palin drew flak even from some conservatives for noting that Ronald Reagan had appeared in Bedtime for Bonzo—as a way of countering complaints that her role in the Alaska reality series as unpresidential—Mansour tweeted: “I'm astonished at the brazen intellectual dishonesty of anyone who claims that Sarah Palin in any way ever ‘mocked’ Ronald Reagan.”
Mansour does all this from behind the curtain. She tweets as RAMansour and doesn’t share a photo; her profile picture is of an ancient coin.
A word of warning, though: Don’t get too familiar with the SarahPAC staffer. Mansour insists on Twitter etiquette: “If you're a batsnot crazy Trig Truther loon, don't call me by my 1st name as if we're on a 1st name basis.”
Howard Kurtz is The Daily Beast's Washington bureau chief. He also hosts CNN's weekly media program Reliable Sources on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET. The longtime media reporter and columnist for The Washington Post, Kurtz is the author of five books.