'Who is Todd Palin? What is his influence?" CNN's Rick Sanchez asked urgently Tuesday afternoon, just before a commercial break. "What is his tie to AIP, the Alaskan Independence Party?"
The anchorman's serious tone and dancing eyebrows -- not to mention a "The Palins and the Fringe" banner across the bottom of the screen -- suggested big surprises. Must-see TV! And all of it coming "right after the break."
So I holstered the remote for a couple of minutes and waited to see what CNN was up to.
The answer: no good.
Rather than deliver a single revelation, the 24-hour cable news channel coughed up a reheated, overwrought and misleading story that seemed designed to yoke Sarah Palin and her husband to the most extreme secessionists in Alaska.
Yes, Todd Palin once belonged to the Alaskan Independence Party. And his wife, the governor and now Republican vice presidential nominee, has been friendly with some of its members.
But neither CNN nor the other news organizations that have reported on the connection, including The Times, have shown that Sarah Palin embraced the call by some in the party to sever their beloved state from "the Lower 48."
To understand the AIP story, voters need a little background.
In the eccentric world of Alaska politics, the party is not so far out on the fringe. An AIP member won the governorship in 1990.
And party members have been in the thick of the state's public life for decades.
Members run the gamut from states-rights enthusiasts to radical secessionists who have advocated extreme measures to free Alaska from the United States.
CNN centered Tuesday's report on an interview with Salon.com reporter David Neiwert, who acknowledged that Sarah Palin never belonged to the party and that her husband joined but "wasn't active at all."
That didn't stop the cable network and anchor Sanchez from front-loading its report with outrageous pronouncements from AIP founder Joe Vogler, now deceased.
"The fires of hell are frozen glaciers compared to my hatred for the American government," Old Joe, as he was known, once said. "And I won't be buried under their damn flag."
Sounds a little like Barack Obama's old pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. Yet, to my knowledge, no direct connection between Vogler and Gov. Palin has been reported.
In the Salon piece, Neiwert and co-writer Max Blumenthal at least went to the trouble of describing Palin's alliances with AIP members when she was mayor of Wasilla.
Salon reported that they blocked tax increases and stopped an ordinance to prohibit carrying guns into schools, playgrounds, government offices and other facilities.
That's information that voters might use to make a decision.
But Sanchez and the CNN crew instead ran their report off into the underbrush, reaching a low when the anchor tried to draw a parallel between the Alaska party and the forces behind the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
"Not comparing them to actions [sic] but comparing them in terms of ideology, not actions but ideology, are [members of the Alaskan Independence Party] similar to the group that blew up the [Alfred P.] Murrah building?" Sanchez asked, seemingly apologetic for that stinker, even as he unleashed it.
Even Neiwert, whose reporting makes him no Palin fan, seemed a bit taken aback by that line. "Well, of course, that was an individual lone wolf who was associated with the patriots" movement, Neiwert said of the Oklahoma City attack. "But, yes, they basically come from the same, uh, sort of ideological background. That's correct."
I still had trouble seeing what that had to do with Sarah Palin.
And John McCain's presidential campaign had the same problem.
"CNN is furthering a smear with this report, no different than if your network ran a piece questioning Sen. Obama's religion," said Michael Goldfarb, a McCain-Palin spokesman. "No serious news organization has tried to make this connection, and it is unfortunate that CNN would be the first."
Responding to the reference to Obama's religion toward the end of the segment, Sanchez either ignored or was too dull to understand that the McCain camp was complaining about unfairness. Instead, he turned to the Salon reporter and asked: "Is this in any way a religious organization, the AIP?"
The regrettable episode ended with Neiwert suggesting that the secessionists have talked about "infiltrating" mainstream political parties to spread their influence.
"Infiltrating," repeated the malleable Sanchez. "Interesting choice of words."
For previous On the Media columns, go to latimes.com/onthemedia.