No witch hunts, no cover-ups

Sen. Larry Craig blamed the Idaho Statesman for conducting a “witch hunt” into his private life and triggering his downfall. But in fact, the Statesman was scrupulously fair, declining to publish the results of its investigation until it could verify, through accounts of those who were with Craig, that he’d had sexual contact with men. The paper only went with the story after Craig – knowing he was under scrutiny – recklessly entered that men’s room in the Minneapolis airport and produced the clear evidence that had been lacking.

As the presidential candidates enter the homestretch of the nominating process – and others decide whether to run for office next year – Craig’s story raises four critical questions about how the media should cover the private lives of public figures over the next 14 months.

• Where does your information come from? The Craig case began almost two years ago when a Washington-based blogger, Mike Rogers, posted charges that four unnamed men had had sex with the senator. Rogers calls himself aa “journo-activist,” and like many bloggers has a very sharp axe to grind; in his case, it’s “outing” closeted gay politicians.

Some Idaho news outlets recycled the charges without verifying the facts. One was the The Spokesman-Review, which posted the rumor online, and editor Dave Oliveria argues that standards of proof are lower on the Web: “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.”

This is exactly the wrong approach, and points up a growing danger posed by Web sites that often follow the adage, “publish first, edit later.” Just because a rumor is “out there” does not justify repeating it. The basic standard of fairness and accuracy should apply even on the Internet: Publish only what you know from your own reporting.

• What do you report? The Idaho Statesman handled the Rogers posting in a far more responsible way. It declined to print the rumor, instead assigning a team of reporters to check it out.

There is an endless debate over when a politician’s private life deserves public scrutiny, and the standard is not always clear. Just because Larry Craig might be gay, or unfaithful, or mean to his dog, should not be grounds for a story. But if he’s hypocritical or dishonest – if his public policies don’t square with his private behavior – then he crosses a line and the rules change.

In Craig’s case, he vehemently denied Rogers’s report. More seriously, he had campaigned on “family values” and supported anti-gay legislation. His own actions justified the investigation. “I think it’s fair game,” said Kelly McBride, an ethicist at The Poynter Institute. “He’s married. When you drive through Idaho during one of his campaigns, you would see photos of his family on billboards and in television commercials.”

• When do you publish? News organizations have to be prepared to terminate an investigation if it does not pan out. Sometimes the most ethical decision is not to publish anything, and that’s what the Idaho Statesman initially concluded. It turned up a few men claiming that Craig had sought sex with them, but there was no proof, and nobody would go on the record.

“The senator said he didn’t do things like that,” Vicki Gowler, the paper’s editor, told The Washington Post. “We had a he said/he said situation. We have to be sensitive to people’s reputations, whether it’s about a senator or a high school principle or an athletic coach.”

What changed everything was Craig’s guilty plea. “That’s what tilted the scales away from our decision not to publish,” explained reporter Dan Popkey. Once that happened, the paper could have been accused of covering up for the senator if it had not published the story.

• What do you publish? Even after Craig’s plea, some critics were uncomfortable with the paper’s decision to publish anonymous charges. A better way is to document the facts as clearly as possible.

A good example: When Arnold Schwarzenegger was running for governor of California, the Los Angeles Times exhaustively investigated allegations that he frequently harassed women. The Times only published its findings after securing affidavits from a number of victims.

Voters have a right to know if their leaders speak honestly and live by the values they preach to others. Leaders have a right to private lives, free from unfair prying and unfounded rumor. The job of the professional journalist – as opposed to bloggers or “journo-activists” – is to find the proper balance between those two rights. Witch hunts and cover-ups are both wrong.

Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.

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