Breaking Old News: Brian Ross and the Foley Story

People stopped talking about Mark Foley a week ago.

He’s old news.

Since it was splashed across front pages at the end of last month, the story has faded from most American newspapers. The Florida congressman has retreated into rehab. And the story, like its main character, has fallen into the shadows of the American news landscape, pushed there by explosive stories about Hawaiian earthquakes and North Korean nukes.

But for some in the press, the Foley story has been around for months, ever since a brief e-mail exchange dropped onto their desks — four messages from a man to a boy, asking about school, plans for summer vacation and a picture. It was those messages, sent by Foley to a 16-year-old page from Louisiana in 2004 that prompted other former pages to reveal the sexually graphic instant messages that led the Florida congressman to resign. Those four short e-mails [PDF] broke the Foley story.

The reporters and editors who saw the e-mails in the months before Foley’s resignation thought they were peculiar, but not explicitly sexual. The journalists asked themselves: Were the messages enough to prompt a story?

One after another, they swept the e-mails off their desks and moved on.

In late August, eleven months after the e-mails were first leaked to news organizations, Brian Ross, chief investigative correspondent for ABC News, received them from a source on Capitol Hill. Some weeks later, in a short post on The Blotter, an ABC News blog, Ross broke the story.

At least seven news organizations had the e-mails before Ross did. The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times and The Miami Herald got them a year ago. Harper’s Magazine and Roll Call had the messages in the spring. And AmericaBlog, The New Republic and Time magazine got them this past summer.

Why didn’t any of them run the story first? How did they let themselves get scooped? And how is it that the last guy to get the tip became the first one to go with the story?

This is about how Brian Ross paired his extensive reporting experience with a new publishing platform to break a story that others chose to pass over. It is about evaluating tips, following up and figuring out when to go public with a story. And, at its core, it’s about standards.

It all began in the fall of 2005. Two Florida newspapers — the St. Petersburg Times, which is owned by The Poynter Institute, and The Miami Herald — received the messages. Tom Fiedler, editor of the Herald, said his staff got them at the end of September — after Katrina, but in the midst of hurricane season. He did not assign a reporter to investigate, saying later in a news report that he “didn’t feel there was sufficient clarity in the e-mails to warrant a story.”

By November, the Times, just a few hours’ drive up the Gulf coast, had the messages, too. Like Fiedler, Times editor Neil Brown chose not to run a story. He did, however, ask his staff to look into it. In an explanation published on the op-ed page of the Times, headlined “Why the Times didn’t publish the Foley e-mails,”
Brown explained that reporters from
his newspaper interviewed the page who received the messages, another former
page, several “members of Congress who were involved in the matter” and
others “who administer the House page corps.” When the page who received the e-mails refused to go on the record, the Times’ inquiry stalled.

“To print what we had,” Brown wrote, “seemed to be a shortcut to taint a member of Congress without actually having the goods.”

Not until this past May did the messages appear in the hands of Roll Call and Harper’s Magazine staffers. Neither ran a story.

When Roll Call editor Timothy Curran was given the e-mails by his newspaper’s gossip columnist, he said he thought they were strange. But he did not see a story. Unable to reach the page who received the e-mails, Curran told his columnist to look into it — if she wanted to.

Ken Silverstein, Washington bureau chief for Harper’s — the publication that appears to have come closest to actually running a story before ABC did — has written that the messages made Foley’s intentions very clear.

“Why would a middle-aged man ask a teenager he barely knew for his
photograph, or what he wanted for his birthday?” Silverstein wrote in a piece on the magazine’s Web site.

Although Silverstein said he could not reach the recipient of the e-mails, he did contact Foley, another former page and Rodney Alexander, the Republican congressman to whom
the first page had forwarded the e-mails he received from Foley. Silverstein wrote a story and scheduled it to run June 2. He said his editor killed it, explaining that the piece failed to demonstrate that Foley was “anything more than creepy.”

Finally, in the summer of 2006, the e-mails made their way to AmericaBlog, The New Republic and Time.

A reporter at Time got the e-mails in June of this year. He looked into them briefly, but he never showed them to his editor.

Jay Carney, Washington bureau chief for the magazine, told Poynter Online that the reporter, who he would not identify, didn’t do anything wrong. But, looking back, Carney said he regrets not seeing the e-mails himself until after the story broke.

“It was kind of put on the back burner,” Carney said. “In retrospect, I wish we had pursued it more aggressively. But it’s been a busy news year.”

August was a month many reporters spent working on anniversary stories about Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Ross was one of them. But when he got the e-mails, he was nearly certain they contained a story.

They were not the kind of messages congressmen should send to pages, Ross said in an interview with Poynter Online. They reminded him of something he covered in 1983 — a story about two men named Daniel Crane, R-Ill., and Gerry Studds, D-Mass., and the congressional pages with whom they had sex.

Ross said of the Foley e-mails: “When I saw those e-mails, I thought to myself, ‘This is at least questionable.’ The person who showed them to us described them to us as a congressperson essentially hitting on a page.”

In the middle of September, Ross went back to the messages. He tried,
without success, to contact the page who received them. He also failed
to reach Alexander. So, he called Foley’s office.

Foley’s staff confirmed the messages were sent by the congressman, but said they were, at worst, “overly friendly.”

On Sept. 24, 2006, the e-mails appeared online for the first time. They showed up on a blog called Stop Sex Predators. The Web site’s author has not been identified. And the motives of the blog, which was launched in July of 2006, have been questioned by politicians and the press.

The official break came four days later.

On Sept. 28, 2006, Ross ran a 356-word story on The Blotter reporting that Foley had sent
e-mails to a page in 2004 that made the 16-year-old uncomfortable
enough to forward them to the office of his own congressman.

Ross said he did not see the Stop Sex Predators blog until after his story ran.

“One
of the reasons we established [The Blotter] was to handle stories that
really didn’t have the heft at that time to warrant ‘The World News’ at
6:30, which essentially is our front page,” Ross said. “And not every
story is a front page-story.”

Although the post of The Blotter prompted two
other former pages to send Ross the sexually graphic instant messages that led Foley
to resign
, Ross said the little story was not designed to ferret out a
bigger one. It stood firmly on its own two feet.

“Each story has to be justified for its own merits,” Ross said. “They’re all going to stand up to our standards.”

But standards vary from place to place.

The editors who decided not to run a story on the Foley e-mails agree that it would have been good to go after the story harder. No one likes to get scooped. Franklin Foer, editor of The New Republic, who was offered the e-mails but never asked to see them, said that even though the story would have forced him to tromp into “icky
journalistic terrain,” he wishes he had at least
asked to see the messages.

But, for the most part, they also agree that the story did not meet their standards. Brown, of the St. Petersburg Times, wrote that the world is “full of those who trade in rumor and gossip.” His newspaper, he wrote, will maintain rigorous standards of “fairness and credibility,” publishing only the stories it can stand fully behind.

Ross decided the e-mails were sufficient basis for a story. Brown decided they weren’t. In fact, the Times advanced the reporting further than ABC ever did — making contact with the page who received the e-mails, another former page and several members of Congress. Still, the newspaper chose not to run a story.

What the Times didn’t do, however, was call Foley. Only Silverstein, who nearly broke the story, and Ross, who did break it, called the congressman’s office. Getting confirmation that the e-mails were, in fact, sent by Foley, a relatively simple piece of reporting, was all Ross needed to run the Sept. 28 Blotter post that broke the story.

Choosing
whether or not to follow, report and publish a story based on a
questionable tip, is never easy. But it’s a choice that journalists have to make over and over everyday. Newsrooms are busy places. No editor has time to follow every tip. And lots of tips don’t lead to stories.

But the editors who chose not run a story on the Foley e-mails say they’ll take extra caution when reviewing news tips in the future.

“Whether
our resources are limited or not, it’s going to make us spend a little
extra time thinking about all the angles on this over-the-transom
information,” said Currin, the Roll Call editor.

“It’ll make us look more thoroughly at everything that has even a whiff of credibility.”

Given the resources in your newsroom, what would you have done if the
Foley e-mails had come across your desk? And what can this story
teach us about how we handle news tips? Tell us here.

We have made it easy to comment on posts, however we require civility and encourage full names to that end (first initial, last name is OK). Please read our guidelines here before commenting.