Miami Herald news, editorial pages claimed Foley emails were "ambiguous" and "innocuous" but didn't note most suggestive content

››› ››› ROB DIETZ

Miami Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler stated that the newspaper didn't pursue a story on emails allegedly written by former Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) to an underage male former page because they were "ambiguous" and "very innocuous" -- a claim similar to one made in a Miami Herald editorial. But in defending the decision not to report the alleged emails, neither Fiedler nor the Herald editorial gave readers the full information on their content.

In recent days, Miami Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler has stated that Herald editors had prior knowledge of emails allegedly written by former Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) to an underage male former page but didn't pursue a story on the emails because they were "ambiguous" and "very innocuous." A Miami Herald editorial also made a similar claim. But in defending the Herald's decision not to report the alleged emails, neither Fiedler nor the Miami Herald editorial gave readers the full information on their content.

On October 2, The Miami Herald reported that although the paper had prior knowledge of Foley's alleged emails, Fiedler said the editors found the messages to be "ambiguous" and they "didn't feel there was sufficient clarity in the e-mails to warrant a story." Similarly, on the October 2 edition of CNN's Newsroom, Fiedler said the language of the emails was "ambiguous" and "very innocuous," and that he didn't assign reporters to the story because "we thought that this was an isolated incident." An October 3 Herald editorial echoed Fiedler's remarks about the decision not to investigate the story, asserting that the paper was aware of "concerns about ... 'over friendly' e-mails" but that it was not "worthy of a news story because it seemed innocuous." Both the article and the editorial purported to explain the paper's decision not to pursue the Foley story, but, while noting the alleged email in which Foley requested a "pic" of the page, neither mentioned an email in which Foley allegedly referred to another page as "in really great shape."

Because the Herald never specifically noted which emails it received -- while characterizing them as "innocuous" -- and sometimes referred to its evidence as simply an "email," it is unclear exactly what emails its editors saw. However, the October 3 editorial noted that Hastert was aware of "e-mails that Mr. Foley had sent to a 16-year-old page -- including one requesting a photo" and that the Herald "knew of this message." Further, in his interview with CNN, Fiedler was asked about the "emails that are now described as 'overly friendly,' " and Fiedler responded that "that's right." The October 2 article in the Herald refers to what the paper saw as "emails," and Fiedler's comment addressed the "emails," which he thought "didn't warrant a story."

The Herald's reason for not investigating the emails is similar to that given by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL), who, as Media Matters for America noted, has claimed that the emails he saw were "over friendly" but not "sexually explicit." By contrast, the St. Petersburg Times, which also had prior knowledge of the email communications between Foley and the page from Louisiana, assigned two reporters to the story but reported on October 2 that the paper decided not to publish the story "because the Louisiana teenager's parents did not want to pursue the issue, and because, despite our best efforts, we weren't able to track down any pages who had received inappropriate e-mails from the congressman."

Moreover, the page involved purportedly had a different view of the emails than that expressed by the Herald. On September 30, Hastert released a statement explaining that Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-LA) had first learned of the alleged email communications between Foley and the page in the fall of 2005, after the recipient forwarded the emails to an Alexander aide; in his correspondence with Alexander's office, the page described the alleged communications with Foley as "sick" 13 times. An October 2 Associated Press article quoted Fiedler as saying that the language of the email "was not sexually explicit and was subject to interpretation, from innocuous to 'sick,' as the page characterized it."

As Media Matters has noted, numerous Republicans and conservatives have rebutted the description of the emails as "over friendly" -- instead describing them as "not normal" and "not innocent" and as having "predator stamped all over" them.

From 11 a.m. hour of the October 2 edition of CNN Newsroom:

TONY HARRIS (anchor): With us in Miami is Tom Fiedler, executive editor at The Miami Herald. Tom, good to see you this morning. Thanks for your time.

FIEDLER: Sure. Glad to be here.

HARRIS: Your paper received or had a chance to look at the emails that are described now as "overly friendly." Is that correct?

FIEDLER: Yes, that's right, at least the initial email that went to the page who worked for Representative [Rodney] Alexander [R-LA]. We did not see the instant messages.

HARRIS: Yeah, and at the time, you decided, the paper decided not to write a piece based on the emails. Can you tell us what your concerns were?

FIEDLER: Several. I think that we felt, initially, that the language -- although I think it was probably inappropriate -- was also ambiguous in what it actually meant or what the message might be.

A big question for us is whether the email had been initiated by the page rather than the back and forth or initiated by Representative Foley, because I think you could read it as being very innocuous had it been initiated by the page, and he was simply responding in a way to be friendly, and it did come across as overly friendly, as the speaker has said.

HARRIS: Hey, Tom, did you think to put -- or maybe you did -- did you put more people on the story with the thought that perhaps there might be more there?

FIEDLER: At the time, we didn't. At the time, we thought that this was an isolated incident. In fact, it was the only one that had come to our attention. Obviously, in hindsight, when this resurfaced last Thursday on ABC's website, we went back and looked at it to see if there was something that we may have missed. And, of course, along with much of the rest of the country, we learned on Friday that there was these -- that a number of other conversations, including the very explicit -- the text messages.

HARRIS: Am I correct? Mark Foley was a state rep?

FIEDLER: Mark Foley started as a state representative from the town of Lakeworth, which is just south of Palm Beach, and very young. He was the first elected at the age of 23 to the statehouse. He was always considered something of a fast riser and extremely popular. I think, in many ways, if there is fault to be found here, both with the media and perhaps with the House Republicans, it's that he was so popular that in a situation where there were perhaps shades of gray, the tendency, I believe, was to err on his side, to see the situations from his point of view, rather than perhaps from the other.

From the October 2 Miami Herald article:

Hastert notes the messages were ''reportedly generated three years ago'' and ''it is important to know who may have had the communications and why they were not given to prosecutors before now. ``I request that the scope of your investigation include any and all individuals who may have been aware of this matter -- be they members of Congress, employees of the House of Representatives, or anyone outside the Congress,'' he wrote.

His letter drew a sharp distinction between the instant messaging sessions -- which Hastert said he was never made aware of -- and e-mails between Foley and a former House page, which top GOP leaders saw in 2005. Foley was told to cease contact with the page. Hastert noted that the same e-mails were viewed by editors at The St. Petersburg Times, which reviewed them, considered them ''friendly chit chat'' and declined to run a story.

Miami Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler said Sunday the newspaper also saw the same e-mails and ``didn't feel there was sufficient clarity in the e-mails to warrant a story.

''We determined after discussion among several senior editors, including myself, that the content of the messages was too ambiguous to lead to a news story,'' Fiedler said.

From the October 3 Miami Herald editorial:

Congressional leaders shouldn't wait for the outcome of the criminal probe to find out exactly what went on here. Because of Mr. Foley's apparent proclivity for making advances to pages, the teenage staffers were warned about steering clear of the congressman. But Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., the speaker of the House, has acknowledged only that his staff had been made aware of concerns about what they termed ''over-friendly'' e-mails that Mr. Foley had sent to a 16-year-old page -- including one requesting a photo -- in the fall of 2005, and that his staff referred the matter to the House clerk.

Who knew what, when

Some newspapers -- including this one -- knew of this message as well and did not find it worthy of a news story because it seemed innocuous. Thus, Democratic charges of a ''cover up'' of Mr. Foley's activities by the Republican House leadership seem not only premature but crassly political. But the discovery of other, more explicit, messages and confusion over who knew what and when raise questions that require answers -- preferably, under oath and soon.

From the October 2 St. Petersburg Times article:

To bolster his argument, Hastert refers to an editor's note published on the St. Petersburg Times Web site Saturday that explains that the newspaper received copies of some of the e-mails to the Louisiana page in November 2005, but characterized them as "friendly chit-chat" and chose not to print a story about them after speaking to Foley.

But on Sunday night, St. Petersburg Times editors rebutted his statements.

"The speaker is inaccurate. Our decision not to publish last fall was not based on an explanation from Rep. Foley," managing editor Stephen Buckley said.

"We didn't publish because the Louisiana teenager's parents did not want to pursue the issue, and because, despite our best efforts, we weren't able to track down any pages who had received inappropriate e-mails from the congressman. We didn't know about any sexually explicit exchanges between Rep. Foley and any former pages until the instant messages became public on Friday."

From the October 2 AP article:

Meanwhile, Florida newspapers who were leaked copies of the e-mail with the Louisiana boy last year defended their decision not to run stories. Both The St. Petersburg Times and The Miami Herald were given copies of the e-mail, as were other news organizations, including Fox News.

"Our decision at the time was ... that because the language was not sexually explicit and was subject to interpretation, from innocuous to 'sick,' as the page characterized it, to be cautious," said Tom Fiedler, executive editor of the Herald. "Given the potentially devastating impact that a false suggestion of pedophilia could have on anyone, not to mention a congressman known to be gay, and lacking any corroborating information, we chose not to do a story."

Network/Outlet
Miami Herald
Stories/Interests
Mark Foley Scandal
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.