It’s journalism’s version of Monday-morning quarterbacking.
Whenever we hear of a newsroom that had its fingers on a great story and let it
go, only to get scooped, we love to imagine how we would have changed things.
I’m talking about the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times (the newspaper owned by The Poynter Institute) and The Miami Herald,
which have both revealed that last year they had copies of the e-mails a
16-year-old Louisiana boy
received from Florida Rep. Mark Foley and then forwarded to his own congressman’s office.
Miami Herald Editor Tom Fiedler says his paper was not
aggressive enough. St. Petersburg Times Executive Editor Neil Brown says his
newsroom did what it thought was appropriate.
The reporter in me knows that, in a perfect world,
journalists dig until they are satisfied they know the truth. The realist tells
me reporters and editors make daily decisions about which stories to publish,
which stories to pursue and which stories to hold off on. Making that choice is sometimes an educated
guess, other times a lucky gamble and often a decision made by default –
something else comes up.
Let’s break it down.
It was an orchestrated leak
that landed the e-mails into the hands of a few journalists. That’s becoming
clear. Not only did the St. Petersburg Times and The Miami Herald get the e-mails, so
did Fox News, according to The Associated Press. I’m going to bet other newsrooms
had the e-mails in question, too.
Veteran political reporters will tell you they sort
through dirty information every day, trying to figure out what’s true and
newsworthy and what isn’t. A tip that comes from the other side isn’t always
worthless, but you view it with skepticism because you know the guy who sent it
wants to make someone else look bad. A tip that is widely shopped around gets a
double dose of doubt.
The original e-mail
from Foley to the boy was not obviously inappropriate. The first journalists to
check it out were waved off by congressional staffers who dismissed it as “overly friendly.” Several Poynter
Ethics Fellows have been discussing the case.
Barbara White Stack, a veteran children’s reporter at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, points out that
this is typical for teens who raise red flags:
don’t believe teenagers as a general case, and specifically, the word of an
adult is almost always taken over that of a teen. … I think we must examine our
own biases carefully when using our shit detectors.
There was only a whiff of evidence that
something improper was going on here — basically, all the paper had was a mostly
innocuous e-mail. … I think the St. Pete Times showed a strong willingness to get
to the bottom of the story — a paper afraid to speak truth to power wouldn’t have
even made the initial allocation of resources to pursue the story. Bottom line: They just didn’t have a publishable story.
Given the nature of this potential story –
the possibility of a powerful public official using his public access to
inexperienced, impressionable young people with questionable potential motives — I think other steps would have been warranted. For instance, contacting the congressional page oversight office and asking whether other parents or pages had complained
about questionable behavior directed at pages.
Also contacting congressional leaders about past or pending complaints
and past or pending investigations. As
with any investigative story, I would want to know what mechanisms exist for
dealing with complaints, which would enable us to assess whether there were any
questions of unusual or special treatment in instances involving powerful
That’s one approach. The other is simply to publish a small story and a copy of the
e-mail, hoping that something else will surface. That’s what ABC News did, in a
The first story, appeared at 3:06 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 28, in Brian Ross’ “The Blotter.” The short story was based on
the e-mail and nothing else. Here’s the lede: “A 16-year-old male former
congressional page concerned about the appropriateness of an e-mail exchange
with a congressman alerted Capitol Hill staffers to the communication.
Congressman Mark Foley’s office says the e-mails were entirely appropriate and
that their release is part of a smear campaign by his opponent.”
The next entry in the blog at 3:40
p.m. had Foley’s Democratic opponent calling for an investigation.
The explicit instant messages surfaced over the next 26 hours.
It was an educated gamble on ABC’s part. In many cases of sexual abuse, more victims come forward after the first story is told. It’s
happened in stories about teachers, doctors, clergy and scout leaders.
But it was risky. Accusing someone of being a child predator
without substantial evidence could lead to horrible consequences. An innocent
man would certainly suffer. The newsroom would be vulnerable to an expensive
legal suit. And the public would condemn the news media as sensational,
irresponsible, anti-Republican stooges.
Even knowing the outcome, it’s not a risk many journalists
would feel comfortable taking.
As murky as the newsroom decisions are in the Foley case, journalists looking back over the story
point out that our watchdog role should be the guiding force.
alternative — potentially allowing even more young people to be manipulated by
a powerful man — could not be easy to just accept. The notion of holding the powerful
accountable is central to the role the American press ascribes to itself. The apparent facts in this situation pointed
at potentially extreme forms of cynicism, hypocrisy and abuse of power.
There are many lessons in the Foley saga. Perhaps the most important
one is that we learn to take children seriously, to respect their judgment and
opinion. That can’t be license to print anything they say. But history shows us
that children are often the first to complain about inappropriate adult
behavior. As adults and as journalists, we have to listen.