Thursday, October 05, 2006

Dissecting the Foley Investigation

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Former Representative Mark Foley in Washington, 2005.

Dissecting the Foley Investigation

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:

Adults 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.

Skip Foster, editor of The Star in Shelby, N.C., raises the question that editors raise all the time: How far should we go to check this out?

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.

Raul Ramirez, director of news and public affairs at KQED in San Francisco, agreed that there was no story with only the e-mail. But he would have pushed his staff to keep digging.

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 individuals.

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 blog.

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.

Raul Ramirez:

"The 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.

Posted by Kelly McBride 12:41:37 PM
--from Poynter Online

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Don't think for me. Don't assume what I want to hear or read. Give me facts. Give me reasons. But not yours. Bring me debate. Enlighten me. Today, accountability is masked behind anonymity; bylines are hidden by zeros and ones. Everyone publishes; everyone is "in the know." Ethics are non-existent. Speculation is king. The truth is masked and a hostage. Empowered by our minds, WE ARE THE FREAKSPEAKERS!


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