From Hearsay to Headline: Tracking the Larry Craig Coverage

It was about 5:30 on a Tuesday evening in mid-October when Dean Miller tracked down Corey Taule by cell phone.

The editor of the Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho, had called his political reporter to let him know about a blogger’s claim that one of the state’s leading political figures had had sex with four men. Taule was on a campaign bus with Republican gubernatorial candidate Butch Otter.

Also on the bus was Larry Craig, a Republican senator from Idaho and the subject of the blogger’s claim.

Taule would discover later that evening that Craig had known about the blog post since early afternoon. The reporter was intrigued, in retrospect, by how unruffled the senator had appeared. But what should the newspaper do?

The blog post relied on assertions made by four unnamed men. It was written by Mike Rogers, a gay blogger who calls himself a “journo-activist” and has a reputation for claiming that some Republican politicians are closeted homosexuals. Rogers also appeared that day on The Ed Schultz Show, a nationally syndicated radio program, to talk about his claim.

Sid Smith, Craig’s press secretary, declined a Poynter Online request for an interview with the senator. He said Craig had nothing to say beyond a denial the senator issued last week.

Shortly after Rogers posted his claim, Smith called the post “ridiculous, almost laughable.”

“It has no basis in fact,” he told reporters.

Rogers said in a telephone interview Thursday that he would go to jail before revealing his sources.

As chatter about his posts circulated online on Oct. 17, the story was gaining traction on a blog maintained by The Spokesman-Review, the daily newspaper covering Spokane, Wash., and northern Idaho.

That blog is called Huckleberries Online, and is maintained by Dave Oliveria, a Spokesman-Review associate editor and editorial writer based in Idaho. He said he first heard about the Rogers claim in an e-mail. After reading Rogers’ blog post and listening to a radio interview with the blogger, Oliveria telephoned Spokesman-Review executive editor Steve Smith and asked whether he should post the story on the Huckleberries blog.

Oliveria said Smith gave him the green light, and he posted a summary of Rogers’ claim to Huckleberries Online.

Asked in a telephone interview Friday if he had any second thoughts or concerns, Oliveria said he did not, adding: “In cyberspace, it’s a little bit different. You talk about the things people are talking about. … If it’s out there and it’s causing a buzz, we’ll go with it.”

He also said: “I trust my gut reaction and after 30 years in the business I think I have a pretty good sense of what goes and what doesn’t.”
 
Moments after speaking with Oliveria, Smith stepped into the afternoon news meeting where he and his colleagues decided the newspaper would publish a story about the situation in the following day’s print edition. A posting on The Daily Briefing, a blog that recaps those daily news meetings, informed readers about that decision.

The blog quoted managing editor Gary Graham at the news meeting: “We can’t ignore it.” 

What follows is a story about how an unconfirmed claim on an activist’s blog migrated to the mainstream media. It is about the newspapers that decided to run a story. It is also about the papers that, so far at least, have decided not to do so.

More than anything, though, this is a story about the decisions made by the editors who lead these organizations.

By Wednesday morning, the Mike Rogers claim was in print.

As decided the afternoon before, it appeared inside the local section of The Spokesman-Review. It landed below the fold on the front page of the Idaho State Journal in Pocatello. And it showed up in a column that ran in The Lewiston Tribune, also in Idaho.

Smith, the Spokesman-Review editor, said stories that start on blogs sometimes “break through the surface and begin to have an impact on our communities.

“This firestorm of interaction over the Rogers assertions had bubbled out of the basement and into the living room,” he said in a telephone interview last week. “… How could we ignore, or pretend to ignore, this debate — this raging conversation — and act as if it’s not there at all, and pretend to be covering politics in Idaho.”

Paul Emerson, managing editor of The Lewiston Tribune, agreed — but only to a point.

“I didn’t think it warranted a news story, but I thought that we should at least be out there,” he said. “We didn’t think there was enough substantiation at all to warrant a news story.”

So, instead of publishing a news story, The Lewiston Tribune ran a column acknowledging the existence of the Rogers claim, but pointing out its biggest flaw.

Wrote political reporter Dean Ferguson: “[H]ere’s the problem: Mike Rogers offered no proof. No evidence. Nothing. Nada.”

The Idaho State Journal ran a story on its front page.

City editor Greg McReynolds said managing editor Ian Fennell decided, almost single-handedly, to run the story and where it should play in the paper. McReynolds said Fennell was on vacation this week. The managing editor did not return repeated messages left on his cell phone.

None of the three papers investigated the Rogers claim to find out whether or not it was true. Two of the editors said they didn’t have the resources. Smith, the Spokesman-Review editor, said the truth of the claim was a non-issue.

“[W]hether Rogers was right or wrong was not what we were interested in dealing with,” he said.

It wasn’t a story about the claim, Smith said; it was about the impact of that claim on the political climate in Idaho. Furthermore, Smith said, the story his paper ran offered the senator a mainstream outlet to deny the claim.

“If we had not given Larry Craig the mainstream opportunity to contradict this story, he would have been victimized by it without the opportunity to respond to it,” Smith said.

Deciding whether or not to run a story was simpler for Paul Queary, the Associated Press news editor who oversees operations in Idaho and Washington. He asked himself two questions: First, is it true? And second, if so, is it news?

His inability to answer the first question, Queary said, rendered the second one irrelevant.

“If we had some sort of comprehensive proof that someone was gay … would that be news? In this case,” he said, “we don’t even approach that.”

He added: “The saying we have in the AP is ‘get it fast but get it right.’ And I don’t think you should let the heat of competition lead you somewhere you wouldn’t go if the competititon wasn’t there.”

No story appeared on the AP wire. Because of that, at least one small newspaper in northern Idaho, the Coeur d’Alene Press did not run a story. Managing editor Mike Patrick said the newspaper relies on the AP for nearly all of its statewide news coverage.

Vicki Gowler, editor of the Idaho Statesman in Boise and a Poynter ethics fellow, also chose not to run a story.

No matter how a story about the Rogers claim is played, she said, to run it at all is to spread an unconfirmed, and potentially untrue, report.

“I know some people were saying it’s reached critical mass, it’s out there on the Internet,” she said. “But I think those are excuses to put rumors in the paper. … I don’t think printing a story to give the senator a chance to deny it makes any sense at all.”

That is not to say, however, that Gowler did not pursue the story. Of the 20 reporters who cover city and state news for the Statesman, two were assigned to the story, as well as a reporter from McClatchy’s Washington bureau. They spoke to Mike Rogers, asking him to put them in touch with his sources, but that never happened.

A Statesman reporter staked out Craig’s house and got a denial from him directly.

But after some deep thought, discussion with her staff and a chat with Bob Steele, the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values at Poynter, Gowler decided to wait.

“We decided [that] people need to know this,” Gowler said of informing her readers about Craig’s sexuality. “But they don’t need to know it in the morning.”

Back in Idaho Falls, Miller, the Post Register editor who is also a Poynter ethics fellow, was thinking the same thing.

“The focusing idea that I put in everyone’s head is — Larry’s not on the ballot, there’s no rush. … So let’s make a decision we’re going to be proud of,” Miller said.

Miller waited as other newspapers in the area published. He considered his alternatives. On the one hand, he could run a news story; on the other, he could run no story at all.

“I was pretty open to the idea of printing nothing,” Miller said.

But Miller knew he had an interesting angle. Taule, his political reporter, was with Craig when the senator found out about the Rogers claim. It was the senator’s reaction to the claim, not the claim itself, that interested Miller and Taule.

Smith, the Spokesman-Review editor, said the Rogers claim had ignited a firestorm of political discussion. Taule called that an overstatement. In fact, what shocked the reporter was how little impact the Rogers claim appeared to have on Craig.

Back in his Idaho Falls newsroom, Miller sent an e-mail to some of his colleagues in the state, conferred with his staff and raised the issue on a listserv for the Poynter ethics fellows. He also exchanged e-mail with Steele, the Poynter journalism values scholar.

Miller suggested to Taule that he address the issue in his weekly column.

The piece appeared in that Friday’s newspaper. Taule narrated his interactions with Craig on the bus. And roughly two-thirds of the way through the piece, the reporter explained how, earlier that day, a blogger had claimed Craig had had sex with four men.

“It was about how Craig reacted to this,” Taule said. “This is out there, people know about it, this is how he dealt with it that day.”

Taule said he received little reaction to the story. One reader wrote to tell the reporter he handled the story in a sensitive way. “I’ve been surprised at how little ripple effect this has had,” Taule said.

It would seem that now, more than two weeks after the Mike Rogers blog post, the story would have faded completely.

But in a few days, after the elections are over, Gowler and Miller said they will once again throw their staffers at the story.

“I think the next story is — Is Larry Craig Gay? And why does that matter in Idaho?” Miller said. “It’s as much a story about the voters as it is about the senator.”

That assertion raises a question: When does a public official’s sexuality, a realm that some still consider to be something of a private zone, become news?

The answer from Miller and Gowler: When it matters to the voters.

Rumors that Craig is gay have circulated for years, Miller said. The Rogers claim has rekindled and strengthened those rumors. Both Miller and Gowler said it’s possible the Rogers claim was true.

They simply don’t know.

But in the state they cover, the two editors said, it’s worth finding out.

Idaho is an overwhelmingly conservative state, Gowler and Miller said. Idaho politicians, including Craig, find common ground on the family values platform. Many voters are Mormons, followers of a religion that considers acts of homosexuality to be sinful.

“Many of [Craig's] supporters would not vote for him if they knew he was homosexual. … So I think it is an issue,” Gowler said. “I’m willing to spend some resources to find out if it’s true [that Craig is gay].

“But I’m not willing to run a story until we have some evidence of our own — our own anonymous sources, at the least.”

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