Media uncritically reported Hastert's defense that Foley emails GOP leaders saw were only "over friendly"

››› ››› SIMON MALOY

In reporting on the scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley, a number of media outlets have reported simply that the House Republican leadership claims to have been aware only of "over friendly" emails Foley sent in 2005, without noting that House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert appeared to have made no effort to determine the actual content of the emails -- including one in which Foley wrote of an underage male page: "[H]es [sic] in really great shape."

In reporting on the scandal surrounding former Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL), who abruptly resigned from Congress on September 29 amid allegations that he sent sexually explicit emails and instant messages to underage former congressional pages, a number of media outlets have reported simply that the House Republican leadership claims to have been aware only of "over friendly" emails Foley sent in 2005. None of these outlets noted, however, that, at all opportunities, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's (R-IL) office appeared to have made no effort to determine the actual content of the emails -- including one in which Foley wrote of an underage male page: "[H]es [sic] in really great shape."

The government watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, posted the emails Foley sent to a 16-year-old former page in 2005 on its website, including this one mentioned above:

I just emailed will ... hes [sic] such a nice guy ... acts much older than his age ... and hes [sic] in really great shape ... I am [sic] just finished riding my bike on a 25 mile journey now heading to the gym ... whats [sic] school like for you this year?

In late 2005, Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-LA) learned of the series of emails exchanged between Foley and a page Alexander had sponsored. The page forwarded the emails to Alexander's office and strung the word "sick" together 13 times in describing them. Alexander's chief of staff then reportedly contacted House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's (R-IL) office about the emails, describing them as "over friendly." Hastert's office reportedly directed Alexander's office to contact the House clerk about the matter. There is no indication that Hastert's office inquired as to the content of the emails.

Then-House clerk Jeff Trandahl and Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), chairman of the House Page Board, were approached by Alexander's office about Foley's emails. According to a September 30 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, both men read the actual emails: "Although there was nothing sexually suggestive in the emails, Shimkus and Trandal [sic] agreed: 'That was enough for us to approach Mark,' Shimkus recalled [in] an interview Saturday." This version of events contradicts that of Hastert's office. According to a September 30 press release from Hastert's office:

The Clerk asked to see the text of the email. Congressman Alexander's office declined citing the fact that the family wished to maintain as much privacy as possible and simply wanted the contact to stop. The Clerk asked if the email exchange was of a sexual nature and was assured it was not. Congressman Alexander's Chief of Staff characterized the email exchange as over-friendly.

The Clerk then contacted Congressman Shimkus, the Chairman of the Page Board to request an immediate meeting. It appears he also notified [Ted] Van Der Meid [Hastert's chief counsel] that he had received the complaint and was taking action.

In a September 30 statement, Rep. Thomas Reynolds (R-NY), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, indicated that he asked to see the content of the emails after Alexander approached him in the spring of 2006, but was denied by Alexander, who, according to Reynolds, "told me that the parents didn't want the matter pursued." Reynolds claimed he told Hastert of the conversation he had with Alexander regarding Foley's emails (Hastert's office has claimed that Hastert does not recall this conversation, but "has no reason to dispute Congressman Reynold's recollection.").

House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-OH) also reportedly acknowledged telling Hastert about Foley's emails in the spring of 2006, though he later changed his story, saying he could not remember whether he contacted Hastert.

Regardless, Hastert has given no indication that he or his office sought to learn the actual contents of Foley's emails and to determine whether or not they were simply "over friendly," despite the fact that the matter was reportedly brought before his office as many as three different times. Indeed, Hastert's letter to the Justice Department asking for a federal investigation into the affair describes just one email: "This email was determined to be 'over friendly' by Representative Alexander's office but was not sexual in nature."

Nevertheless, several media outlets have simply repeated Hastert's "over friendly" excuse for not investigating the matter. In an October 1 article, The New York Times reported that "Congressional Republican leaders said the messages, which an Alexander aide described to them as 'overfriendly,' were much less explicit than the others that came to light," and noted simply that Foley, in his emails, "asked about the well-being of the boy." Though the Times noted that Alexander's former page described the emails as "sick," the Times has yet to note Foley's "really great shape" email. According to the Times article:

Aides to the speaker and other Congressional Republican leaders said the messages, which an Alexander aide described to them as ''overfriendly,'' were much less explicit than the others that came to light after ABC News first disclosed the e-mail correspondence with Mr. Alexander's page. The aides said Mr. Alexander's office, at the request of the page's family, did not show them copies of the messages. In those messages, sent after Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Foley asked about the well-being of the boy, a Monroe, La., resident. He wrote: ''How are you weathering the hurricane ... are you safe ... send me a pic of you as well.'' The page sent the note to a former colleague, describing it as ''sick.''

In another message, Mr. Foley wrote, ''What do you want for your birthday coming up ... what stuff do you like to do.''

The e-mail exchanges that came to light after the first news reports were far more graphic. When he was confronted about them on Friday, Mr. Foley resigned. Republican leaders said they had not known about the other e-mail correspondence.

Similarly, the Associated Press reported on October 2 that Hastert said Foley's emails "were not viewed as 'sexual in nature' ":

Hastert acknowledged that his staff had been made aware of concerns about what they termed "over-friendly" e-mails Foley had sent to the teenager -- including one requesting his picture -- in the fall of 2005, and that they referred the matter to the House clerk.

But Hastert said those e-mails were not viewed as "sexual in nature" and that he was not aware of "a different set of communications which were sexually explicit ... which Mr. Foley reportedly sent another former page or pages."

The AP, however, had previously noted that Hastert described one of the pages as being "in great shape." From a September 30 AP article: " 'he's such a nice guy,' Foley wrote about the other boy. 'acts much older than his age ... and hes [sic] in really great shape ... i am [sic] just finished riding my bike on a 25 mile journey now heading to the gym ... whats [sic] school like for you this year?' "

On the October 2 broadcast of NBC's Today, correspondent Mike Taibbi reported that the House Republican leadership did not know "about any overtly sexual messages":

TAIBBI: At least five Republican house members did know ahead of time, some nearly a year ago, about e-mails described as "over-friendly" that Foley sent a 16-year-old male page, though not about any overtly sexual messages.

USA Today reported on October 2:

Hastert has acknowledged that his aides were made aware of concerns about what they called "over-friendly" e-mails -- including one requesting the boy's picture -- in fall 2005, and that they referred the matter to the House clerk.

But Hastert has said that those e-mails were not viewed as "sexual in nature" and that he was not aware of "a different set of communications which were sexually explicit ... which Mr. Foley reportedly sent another page."

As the weblog Think Progress noted, even conservative pundit Bay Buchanan, appearing on the October 2 edition of CNN's The Situation Room, said: "I know one thing: that e-mail they call an 'overly friendly e-mail' -- that had predator stamped all over it."

Network/Outlet
NBC, The New York Times, USA Today, Associated Press
Show/Publication
Today Show
Stories/Interests
Mark Foley Scandal
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