Juneau tour bus complaints reframed as anti-Palin rally

News analysis shows two high-contrast versions

Posted: Sunday, May 17, 2009

Since a handful of "STOP LOCAL TOURS" signs have gone up in two Juneau neighborhoods downtown, two high-contrast takes on the meaning behind them have been circulating.

In one take, Chip Thoma of the watchdog group Responsible Cruising in Alaska has been galvanizing some residents fed up with years of extra noise, traffic and safety worries brought on by tour operators routing their vehicles - especially buses - through narrow neighborhood streets. For years, tour operators shuttling cruise passengers to and from Juneau's main attractions have incorporated a detour through a few neighborhood streets to get a drive-by glimpse of the Governor's Mansion on Calhoun Avenue.

Or in Thoma's words, "That five seconds ruins a neighborhood. ... If the governor's house had historical value and parking and a scheduled tour, I could see it. But since there is no parking in the area, there are no tours ... it's just an inappropriate venue they're using there."

The second version began in the blogosphere and has gone viral, with some dubious elements migrating back into mainstream media. The viral version goes something like this: Chip Thoma, a convicted felon and drunk driver from Juneau, has a grudge against Gov. Sarah Palin and/or despises 8-year-old Piper Palin's lemonade stand, so as a veiled attack on them he mounted a grassroots campaign to eradicate bus tours in Juneau. Flaming, hyperbolic outrage ensued.

How did this story go from a few neighbors grumpy about buses to this speculative, error-ridden, and illogical anti-Palin theory? One reader - or letter writer, at least - from a far-flung end of the country wrote expletive-infused hate mail threatening the Empire's staff with physical injury for picking on Piper Palin and her lemonade stand, despite the fact that there's been nary a mention of either in these pages, save an Empire photographer's unrelated, incidental photo of the lemonade stand snapped with the governor's permission.

Here's a timeline of items published on the topic that may shed some light on the ebb and flow of misinformation.

Thursday, May 7: The blog Conservatives4Palin.com publishes an account from an unnamed source described merely as "a Juneau reader" that claims Chip Thoma mounted the "STOP LOCAL TOURS" campaign because "thousands of people are walking from the docks to the governor's mansion in an attempt to catch a glimpse of the first family. Mr. Thoma feels that this - along with Piper Palin's lemonade stand, trampoline and buoy swing - is 'bringing down the neighborhood.'"

Friday, May 8: The Empire publishes a story on the "STOP LOCAL TOURS" signs. Thoma and residents represent the effort as opposition to the neighborhood nuisance tour operators have caused by incorporating a brief drive-by glimpse of the Governor's Mansion into their routes for shuttling cruise ship tourists to and from Juneau's main attractions.

Thoma and the residents want the buses rerouted to Egan Drive and off of their streets. Neither Thoma nor the individual residents interviewed for the story connect the nuisance tours directly to Gov. Sarah Palin or her family. The closest the story gets to a mention of them is the Governor's Mansion, in the context of years of complaints about the tours pre-dating Palin's administration.

Thoma's campaign also took root with a pocket of residents living on or near Basin Road, which is completely removed from the Governor's Mansion.

Saturday, May 9: The Anchorage Daily News runs a story offering Palin's take on the issue. Part of her reaction is prompted by Thoma's use of the word "voyeur" in an April 30 letter to Juneau tour operators, in which he wrote:

"The residents of Calhoun and 12th Streets in downtown Juneau request that motorized tours past the Governor's house end, because of direct, adverse impacts on local neighborhoods. ... As Governor Palin spends very little time in Juneau, especially during the summer, these are 'voyeur' tours premised solely on her notoriety."

In Palin's response, she herself injects Piper into the discussion as a potential draw for tour bus traffic - an idea that earlier had only been published at Conservatives4Palin.com.

"I wanted to offer (Thoma) to hide Piper's trampoline further in a corner of the yard ... if it's a matter of not giving anyone anything to look at so they'll go away then I'd ask Piper to not giggle so loudly on her buoy swing or bicycle in the yard," the ADN quoted her saying from a written statement.

In the piece, Thoma also recants the cash-in-on-Palin-fame angle and reiterates that it's a long-standing neighborhood issue.

"It has nothing to do with Sarah Palin, it really doesn't, she just happens to be governor in 2009," Thoma tells the ADN.

The wire service of the ADN's corporate parent company, McClatchy, and the Associated Press pick up the story, and some media outlets across the country carry it.

Also May 9: The Web site Conservatives4Palin.com republishes most of the ADN piece, rails on Thoma as a liar, and plays up the Palin voyeurism angle with a sarcastic rebuff.

"I am sure that thousands of people were lining up to catch a glimpse of the charismatic (former Gov.) Tony Knowles."

Monday, May 11: The Empire publishes a feature photo of Piper Palin's lemonade stand, taken May 10. It stands alone with no news story attached. The caption names the people pictured and goodies for sale only.

Also May 11: Freelancer Warner Todd Huston writes a column that pops up on a few political blogs and goes viral, linked dozens of times. He uses a series of false assumptions about tourism being up in Juneau and Piper Palin opening a lemonade stand to cash in on bus-riding tourists as a jumping off point for some biting commentary, and to muckrake Thoma's criminal record.

It links to the Empire's May 8 story, the lemonade stand photo, and the May 7 Conservatives4Palin blog. One site where Huston's piece was published teases it with this line: "Juneau paper chronicles ravings of man upset with Piper Palin's lemonade stand."

Wednesday, May 13: The anti-Palin theory makes another mainstream media leap into the pages of the Ketchikan Daily News in a staff editorial.

"The activist seems to be using the complaint as a way to slam Palin for not actually being in Juneau much of the time. ... It's Palin he has the problem with," the paper writes.

Beyond the blogs

Palin spokesman Bill McAllister said the governor's office offered to meet with Thoma "to find ways to reduce any perceived distractions in the neighborhood resulting from the presence of the First Family."

Thoma politely declined in a May 8 letter to the office. He said Palin would be better served meeting with Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho on the matter and offered some practical suggestions to reduce tour traffic down Calhoun Avenue and 12th Street.

Thoma said the deferral to the mayor was a deliberate move to avoid getting further entangled in the anti-Palin theory.

In an interview, Thoma volunteered his criminal record, noting some 30-year-old convictions for driving while intoxicated and one cocaine-related conviction almost 25 years old.

"People have it in their minds that I'm an arch criminal," he said.

Thoma said he'd prefer not to comment further on the blogosphere's take.

"It is better it dies an unnatural web-death," he wrote in an e-mail.

• Contact reporter Jeremy Hsieh at 523-2258 or e-mail jeremy.hsieh@juneauempire.com.

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