HBO's 'Game Change': Capitalizing on Omission to Change the Narrative

As someone who doesn't instinctively leap to former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's defense, even I've been dismayed by trailers depicting what appears to be HBO's disingenuous movie adaptation of the book "Game Change."

The film is said to be loosely based on reporter Mark Halperin and John Heilemann's book, which is troubling in itself. Big Hollywood has been covering the numerous inaccuracies depicted in the book, which also drew criticisms from both media critic Howard Kurtz and The New York Times. But while the book tracked the 2008 election as a whole, and focused only a small amount of attention on Palin, the HBO film concentrates entirely on Palin.


Sometimes, it's not about the liberties taken with the truth as much as the narrative created by omitting key facts.

One particular discrepancy in HBO's "Game Change" is the pro-life Palin's stance on stem cell research. The film is said to paint Palin as someone who wouldn't appear at an event with anyone who isn't pro-life.

This is ludicrous. Palin has shared the stage with Sen. Joe Lieberman as well as various Democrats, all of whom are pro-choice.

Perhaps most notable was Palin's appearance in Carson, Calif. alongside Shelly Mandell, the president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Despite the fact that the NOW PAC officially endorsed Obama, Mandell apparently felt strongly enough about Palin's accomplishments to speak on her behalf.

I'm here today proud to support Sarah Palin, a woman who will fight for women's rights, a woman who will fight for the middle class, a woman who will - Lord knows - shake things up.
[…]

Now, make no mistake. I'm a life-long Democrat. I don't agree, I've got to tell you, I don't agree with Governor Palin on several issues. […]

But ...  but I know Sarah Palin cares about women's rights, she cares about equality, she cares about equal pay, and as Vice President she will fight for it. […]

It is an honor to call her sister. America, this is what a feminist looks like: Governor Sarah Palin.

More importantly, the book's authors on at least two occasions frame the specific issue of stem cell research in a false light by omitting the qualifying part of not only Palin's stance on the issue, but of John McCain's as well.

A September 30, 2008 FactCheck.org post actually lays out precisely where McCain and Palin drew the line on stem cell research:

McCain, Sept. 15, 2008: "While I support federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, I believe clear lines should be drawn that reflect a refusal to sacrifice moral values and ethical principles for the sake of scientific progress ... I oppose the intentional creation of human embryos for research purposes and I voted to ban the practice of 'fetal farming,' making it a federal crime for researchers to use cells or fetal tissue from an embryo created for research purposes."

Both McCain and Palin opposed federal funding for the creation of embryos for the sole purpose of scientific stem cell research. Further, as a staunch pro-life advocate, Palin has always been on record as supporting stem cell research, provided that it comes from sources that do NOT "create an embryo and then destroy it for research."

For the "Game Change" book to have plainly stated, in a quote from Steve Schmidt, "Senator McCain is in favor of stem cell research; you [Palin] are not," is just simply disingenuous in its omission of the important qualifiers. Should the makers of the HBO film portray Palin in the same extreme light it would be outright dishonest.

The book "Game Change" also makes reference to an incident in which Palin's views on stem cell research drove her to defy a promise to the McCain campaign:

Palin had promised to support McCain’s positions, even those she disagreed with. But one day in September, when the campaign arranged an elaborate and expensive setup for her to shoot a pro-stem-cell-research television ad, she showed up and refused to read her lines. You should have sent me the script before, Palin declared. I’m not saying this.

Again, this seems wholly disingenuous. Going back again to the FactCheck.org piece, an ad stating the McCain campaign's stance on stem cell research hit back at a misleading pro-Obama ad.

While the FactCheck.org piece notes one difference between McCain and Palin that is generalized under the umbrella of stem cell research, Newsbusters actually uncovered the likely source of such a discrepancy at the time [emphasis added].

During the final gubernatorial debate before the 2006 election in Alaska, KTOO-TV reporter Christopher Clark brought up the issue of stem cell research to one of Palin’s opponents, independent Andrew Halcro: "[A]s you may know, next week in Missouri, folks there will be voting on whether to allow stem cell research -- embryonic stem cell research in that state ... Opponents say that this is -- involves the destruction of an embryo, therefore it should not be allowed. Should Alaska allow stem cell research here?"

CHRISTOPHER CLARK: Miss Palin, you have up to a minute. Should Alaska allow stem cell research?

SARAH PALIN: Well, another hypothetical, because you certainly haven't seen that on the docket there in our university systems -- stem cell research. But here again, with a pro-life position -- and it's interesting that so many questions, I guess, do revolve around that -- that centeredness that I have of respecting life and the potential of every human life. That no stem cell research that would ultimately end in destruction of life -- I couldn't support.

Palin's answer was actually in response to a question that initially clarified it was specific to embryonic stem cell research. Again, it's a tiny but important omission in other sources that greatly muddied the waters on the issue and the 2008 McCain-Palin's campaign's stance on it. Various news reports subsequently reported Palin's views as "extreme," at times citing this 2006 gubernatorial debate exchange.

In politics, it is easy to manipulate the narrative by spinning facts and capitalizing on omissions. But candidates at least have the power to respond to such tactics through a variety of outlets while the campaign is in gear. We are years out of the McCain-Palin campaign, and now Hollywood is taking the shots. Unfortunately, as the Palin camp feared, it's likely that the film may have done so without providing the benefit of solid background research to compensate for where the book had its failings.

Once again, it will fall to viewers and resources like Big Hollywood to set the record straight.


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