Numerous news outlets have continued to uncritically report House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's description of the emails Rep. Mark Foley allegedly sent to a 16-year-old former congressional page as "over friendly" and, in some cases, have themselves adopted his characterization.
In recent days, numerous conservatives and Republicans have rebutted House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's (R-IL) description of the emails Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) allegedly sent to a 16-year-old former congressional page as "over friendly." These lawmakers and media figures have pointed out that the string of emails, which was provided to the Republican leadership in late 2005, was "not normal," "not innocent," and "had predator stamped all over it." Nonetheless, several news outlets have continued to uncritically report Hastert's downplaying of the emails' content and, in some cases, have themselves adopted his characterization.
On September 29, Foley abruptly resigned from Congress after ABC News first reported that he had engaged in an inappropriate email correspondence in the summer of 2005 with an underage male page. In these emails allegedly sent by Foley, he requested a photograph of the teenager and wrote of another underage male page: "[H]es [sic] in really great shape." ABC News subsequently disclosed more explicit instant messages that Foley had allegedly sent to another former page in 2003.
The news of Foley's resignation was followed by a series of shifting and contradictory explanations from Republican House leaders regarding what they previously knew of Foley's alleged behavior and when they learned of it. On September 30, Hastert finally released a statement explaining that Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-LA) had first learned of the alleged email communications between Foley and the former page in the fall of 2005, after the recipient forwarded the emails -- which he described as "sick, sick, sick" -- to an Alexander aide. When Alexander advised Hastert's staff of the issue, they told him to bring the matter to the attention of then-House clerk Jeff Trandahl, who subsequently informed Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), chairman of the House Page Board. Trandahl and Shimkus then confronted Foley about the emails and requested that he cease communication with the minor in question.
In both this statement and his September 30 letter to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales requesting a Department of Justice investigation, Hastert asserted that the alleged email correspondence between Foley and the page was "determined to be 'over friendly' by Representative Alexander's office but was not sexual in nature."
Numerous media outlets initially reported, without challenge, Hastert's description of the 2005 emails as simply "over friendly," as Media Matters for America noted. But several conservatives and Republicans have since objected to this characterization of the emails and have argued that they should have provoked deeper scrutiny from the GOP House leadership when they first came to light:
- "Late yesterday afternoon, Mr. Hastert insisted that he learned of the most flagrant instant-message exchange from 2003 only last Friday, when it was reported by ABC News. This is irrelevant. The original e-mail messages were warning enough that a predator ... could be prowling the halls of Congress. The matter wasn't pursued aggressively. It was barely pursued at all." ("Resign, Mr. Speaker," Washington Times editorial, 10/3/06)
- "I don't think it would pass the sniff test. ... Even asking those questions -- that is not normal between a 52-year-old adult and a 16-year-old. ... It's not like they're family friends or anything. I think it would raise some serious questions." (Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), quoted in the Los Angeles Times, 10/3/06)
- "This thing should have been looked into months ago. ... That's abnormal for a 52-year-old man having those kinds of e-mails going to a 16-year-old child." (Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-NC), quoted in The Washington Post, 10/3/06)
- "Hastert's office said aides referred the matter to the proper authorities last fall but they were only told the messages were 'over-friendly.' In other words, they did no investigating because they didn't want to know the truth. An election was coming, and Republicans were hoping to hold their slim majority in a tough contest this year." (Joseph Farah, editor and CEO of WorldNetDaily, 10/3/06)
- "Any member of Congress who knew about Foley's inappropriate actions before the recent flood of news coverage, and failed to take meaningful action, should resign. And let's be clear, the 'overly friendly' communications that the House leadership has admitted to knowing about are not innocent and should not be downplayed. All of Foley's reported communications were inappropriate and perhaps illegal." (Judicial Watch president Tom Fitton, press release, 10/2/06)
- "I know one thing: That e-mail they call an 'overly friendly e-mail' -- that had predator stamped all over it. No one in this country can suggest otherwise. You're in a leadership position. You have a colleague you know is at least a potential predator, and we have the pages coming through his office every day? They had an obligation, that same day, to investigate him further." (Conservative commentator Bay Buchanan, CNN's The Situation Room, 10/2/06)
But even as these conservatives have rebutted Hastert's characterization of the emails, many reporters have continued to uncritically repeat Hastert's characterization of them as "over friendly." For instance, on the October 3 edition of CNN Newsroom, congressional correspondent Joe Johns reported that "one question now being asked is whether House leaders, who first learned of a so-called over-friendly email from Foley to a former page months ago, had a duty to do more than simply tell Foley to cease all communications with the former page." In other cases, reporters have noted both Hastert's description of the emails and the former page's description of them as "sick" but did not inform their viewers or listeners of the actual content of the messages:
- On the October 2 edition of CNN Newsroom, correspondent Bob Franken reported that, after Alexander learned of "what the page called 'sick' e-mails he had received from Foley," the concerns regarding his behavior were "shared over the next few months with the top echelon of the GOP in the House, including Hastert's office. They reached a consensus that Mark Foley's e-mails were merely, quote, 'over friendly.' And Foley was warned to end all communications with the page and to be careful about his contacts."
- On the October 2 edition of National Public Radio's Day to Day, congressional correspondent Brian Naylor reported that congressional Republican leaders thought the emails -- "which the page had characterized as sick" -- were "overly friendly." Host Alex Chadwick earlier noted that Hastert "said he knew about overly friendly e-mails that Mr. Foley was sending to these pages, but not the explicit instant messages that turned up later."
Some other reporters downplayed the content of the emails by describing them as "overly friendly" or even "chatty" in their own words:
- On the October 2 edition of Fox News' Special Report, Fortune magazine Washington bureau chief Nina Easton described the emails as "overly friendly but not sexually suggestive."
- In an October 3 article, USA Today staff writer Kathy Kiely reported that "Hastert said House officials had no reason to press further when Foley explained a chatty e-mail to a 16-year-old boy in which the representative requested the former House page's photograph. That e-mail caused the boy's parents to complain, but it contained nothing sexually explicit."
From the October 2 edition of CNN Newsroom:
FRANKEN: The Republican leaders, in particular House Speaker Dennis Hastert, were trying to not get hopelessly entangled in questions about how they handled the Foley matter. Hastert's aides were notified in the fall of 2005 by Louisiana Republican Congressman Rodney Alexander that a page he had sponsored complained about what the page called "sick" emails he had received from Foley. The information was shared over the next few months with the top echelon of the GOP in the House, including Hastert's office. They reached a consensus that Mark Foley's emails were merely, quote, "over friendly." And Foley was warned and all communications with the page and to be careful about his contacts.
From the October 2 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:
BRIT HUME (host): Well Nina, what about what they knew and when they knew it, and what they did or didn't do and what about how long this all lasts -- your thoughts?
EASTON: Well, clearly the pages knew about -- this was -- back to 2002-2003. It went up to the leadership ranks in 2005, as far as we know, through the campaign operative for the Republicans, which -- Tom Reynolds -- which is what the Democrats now are making hay about. Went to Hastert's office last Fall, and I think what Hastert's trying to do here is make a distinction between emails, which both he and a newspapers that looked at considered overly friendly but not sexually suggestive, and these IMs.
From the October 3 edition of CNN Newsroom:
JOHNS: And now, after Mark Foley's resignation, the focus is on his alleged words written in cyberspace, the raunchy instant messages that sent a shudder through the Congress last week.
REP. JOHN SHIMKUS (R-IL) [video clip]: The instant messages Mark Foley reportedly sent to a former page are deplorable.
JOHNS: But one question now being asked is whether House leaders, who first learned of a so-called over-friendly email from Foley to a former page months ago, had a duty to do more than simply tell Foley to cease all communications with the former page.
From the October 2 edition of NPR's Day to Day:
CHADWICK: Now, last week, Speaker Hastert said he knew nothing about the emails, and then later he said he knew about overly friendly emails that Mr. Foley was sending to these pages, but not the explicit instant messages that turned up later. So just go over the -- kind of the chronology here.
NAYLOR: Yeah, the page involved was sponsored as -- they're all sponsored by their local members of Congress. In this case it was Congressman Rodney Alexander of Louisiana. And the page's family went to Alexander and told him about the emails from Foley, which the page had characterized as sick. Alexander then went to Tom Reynolds [R-NY], who is the chairman of the House Republican Campaign Committee [sic]. Reynolds says he told Hastert and other members of congressional leadership, Republican leadership. Hastert says he doesn't have a specific recollection of this but that he doesn't dispute Reynolds. Congressional leaders thought the emails were, as you say, overly friendly, and Foley was told to end the communications.
And there it sat for several months, until the revelations of more sexually explicit exchanges, apparently sent to another former page, were revealed last week. And all the while, Alex, as you say, Foley remained as chairman of the Congressional Missing and Exploited Children's Caucus.