The press and Mark Foley

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Stuck playing the unpleasant newsroom game of the One That Got Away, and trying to explain why his newspaper sat on one of the biggest political stories in Florida history, Miami Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler last week confirmed his newspaper knew for months Rep. Mark Foley had taken unusual interest in an underage congressional page and that the 52-year-old congressman allegedly even emailed the boy asking for a photograph. (The page himself later described the inappropriate back-and-forth as "sick, sick, sick.") It was the same alleged email ABC News later published, which then created a tidal wave effect as other former pages came forward to detail a torrent of often sexually graphic communications they claimed to have had with the disgraced congressman.

Stuck playing the unpleasant newsroom game of the One That Got Away, and trying to explain why his newspaper sat on one of the biggest political stories in Florida history, Miami Herald executive editor Tom Fiedler last week confirmed his newspaper knew for months Rep. Mark Foley had taken unusual interest in an underage congressional page and that the 52-year-old congressman allegedly even emailed the boy asking for a photograph. (The page himself later described the inappropriate back-and-forth as "sick, sick, sick.") It was the same alleged email ABC News later published, which then created a tidal wave effect as other former pages came forward to detail a torrent of often sexually graphic communications they claimed to have had with the disgraced congressman.

Pressed for an explanation, Fiedler admitted the paper failed to act, in part, because Foley was "so popular," because he enjoyed for many years an "open" and "fairly positive" relationship with the Herald, and because the paper had been too deferential toward the congressman, too willing to "see the situations from his point of view." (Foley told the Herald in 2005 the email exchange represented a "misinterpretation of an innocent set of questions" he'd sent the former page.)

Fiedler's bottom line on why the paper failed to pursue the page story: "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."

The odd part about the explanation was Fiedler's assertion that Foley was "a congressman known to be gay." (This was before Foley's attorney publicly confirmed that fact last week.) Odd, because Fiedler's newspaper had never once reported that "known" detail in its news pages, despite the fact that questions about Foley's sexuality had, since 2003, come up in a political context with regard to the congressman's career. And for the record, it was conservative Republicans who made Foley's sex life a political issue, effectively forcing him to abandon his campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2003. Yet for years the Herald, along with virtually every other media outlet, refused to inform its readers about what we're now told was common knowledge.

How common? Even before the announcement made by Foley's attorney last week, Rep. Peter King, (R-NY) went on national television and announced "there is no doubt [Foley] was a homosexual." And The Palm Beach Post reported after-the-fact that "Foley's sexual orientation was a non-secret in South Florida for years." So in 2003, when the issue became a public and political one, why were news consumers purposefully left unaware?

The reason it matters is there is a direct link between the Foley events of 2003, 2005, and 2006. And because the Herald, among others, did not report honestly about Foley in 2003. By deciding then that his homosexuality wasn't newsworthy, the Herald appears to have failed to consider its relevance in assessing the newsworthiness of the alleged email exchange that surfaced in 2005. And not being upfront in 2003 made broaching the topic of Foley's private life as a news story in 2005 that much more uncomfortable. This is not to say that he was more likely to be a pedophile because he's gay. The point is that had the Herald not dismissed his homosexuality as irrelevant, it would have been more likely to read the alleged email exchange -- written to a young man -- as the sexual overture it apparently was, in the same way that such an exchange between a heterosexual congressman and a female page should also have raised red flags.

It seems obvious journalists declined to report pertinent, albeit uncomfortable, information about a high-profile Republican in hopes the awkward issue would go away. By doing so, journalists failed in their central role as a public watchdog, not because they refused to report a congressman was gay, which in and of itself is not a reporter's job, but because they refused to put the unfolding Foley story in proper context, which in this specific instance meant dealing honestly with the public struggle that was going on within the Republican Party over Foley's sexuality.

If news outlets had been transparent in reporting on Foley when the issue burst onto the Florida political scene in 2003, I doubt the same news outlets would have been caught napping when the alleged Foley-page emails surfaced in late 2005. "That was a complete dereliction of duty," says Bob Norman, who's written extensively about Foley for the Broward-Palm Beach New Times, a South Florida alternative weekly. "The reason they didn't publish [about Foley] in 2003 played a role in why they didn't publish in 2005. It made the story that much more difficult to tell." Instead, Florida news outlets gave Foley a pass, leaving it for ABC News to break the page story 10 months later. (The irony, as ABC proved using the same emails the Florida newspaper had, was that all the story needed was a slight push and the whole scandal quickly tumbled into public view.)

It might seem odd for a progressive to be suggesting the press should have paid more attention to the private sexual conduct of a politician, considering progressives were outraged during the 1990's when Republicans charged into President Clinton's bedroom and tried to turn his actions into a criminal and political issue. And it might seem even odder for a progressive to be suggesting journalists should have taken it upon themselves to essentially out Foley when they had the chance. Not true.

Like most mainstream journalists, I don't think a politician's private sex life represents a legitimate news topic or is fair game for media snooping. Chasing rumors of homosexuality on Capitol Hill is nothing more than gossip mongering -- just as it's wrongheaded to try to make a casual connection between gay men and pedophilia. But keep in mind that over the last three years Foley's sexuality had become the central issue in his career, with even the White House weighing in on his electability. Reporters who knew the facts should have been honest with readers instead of dancing around the details and self-censoring key information.

Florida newspapers stumble

Credit Fiedler at the Herald with being upfront about the paper's errors in dismissing the Foley story last year, and he clearly wishes he'd acted differently. But that doesn't diminish the severity of the missteps.

According to Fielder, because Herald editors concluded the alleged Foley email message they obtained a copy of was "ambiguous" and "very innocuous" (which is highly debatable), the paper didn't assign any reporters to the story. Why? Because editors "thought that this was an isolated incident. 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.'' [Emphasis added.]

That's journalism by summary judgment; concluding before you do any reporting that a story isn't worth doing any reporting on.

The Herald was not alone in bungling the story last year. The St. Petersburg Times was also tipped off about Foley's inappropriate communications. Unlike the Herald, the Times at least assigned reporters to story, but editors balked at printing anything because, in part, the underage page, a minor at the time of the "sick" correspondence with Foley, would not go public with his story. Although the boy did privately tell the Times he considered the congressman's request for a photograph to be "very inappropriate."

"The St. Petersburg Times doesn't publish stories that make accusations based upon sources we can't name," the paper announced last week. But honestly, is there a major news organization in the country that would want a minor to go on the record about being possibly preyed upon by a U.S. congressman? My guess is most news outlets have a policy that forbids printing the name of a minor in just such a situation. The Times' rationale for sitting out the Foley story, like the Herald's summary judgment approach, does not make much sense. (According to an Associated Press report last week, Fox News also received an early warning about the wayward Republican and did nothing, which surprises almost no one.)

To understand why editors botched the Foley story in 2005, you have to go back to 2003, when most of the same editors made a conscious decision to not report accurately about Foley, even though members of his own party were raising questions about his sexuality.

There's a school of thought among activists that says any closeted Republican running for office deserves to be outed since the party itself, particularly in recent years, has turned to anti-gay rhetoric and legislative initiatives in what many see as a cynical attempt to bolster voter turnout among evangelical Christians, who see homosexuality as an abomination. It was the hypocrisy angle that Norman used back in May of 2003 to justify his Broward-Palm Beach New Times cover story, titled "Out with the Truth: With his voting record at issue, why won't U.S. Congressman Mark Foley just say that he's gay?" The article, a reported piece with on-the-record quotes from Foley's colleagues and friends that left little doubt about the issue at hand, came in the wake of Sen. Rick Santorum's (R-PA.) high-profile comments equating homosexuality with bestiality, comments Foley refused to denounce. "I felt like it was blatant hypocrisy for Foley to even belong to that party," Norman told me in an interview last week.

Personally, I don't think the umbrella charge of political hypocrisy is enough to warrant the media's intrusion into a politician's private life, whether it's Gary Hart's or Mark Foley's. But Norman's New Times feature also keyed off the fact that in the spring of 2003 Foley was traveling all over Florida in his first statewide campaign, running for the Republican nomination for a U.S. Senate race. And one of the biggest hurdles Foley faced was his moderate stance on gay rights.

Why did Foley, a closeted and otherwise conservative Republican, have a liberal record on gay rights? Because in 1996, when he voted in favor the Marriage Defense Act, the first federal law that sought specifically to define marriage as between a man and a woman, therefore making same-sex marriages illegal, the congressman was immediately outed by the gay press. The story was not picked up by the mainstream press, but it appears Foley got the message and quickly changed course, becoming a Republican champion of sorts on legislative issues concerning gays. A happy middle ground had been reached: Foley was supportive of gay rights, and the gay press left him alone.

But then Foley ventured out statewide during his Senate campaign in 2003, his renegade, pro-gay rights streak ticked off conservative Florida Republicans, some of whom were vocal not only about Foley's public voting record, but also about his private sex life. In one instance, John Parsons, the Republican committeeman from Palm Beach County, raised concerns about Foley's sexuality in an email to members of Foley's Senate campaign steering committee, warning he would never vote for a gay candidate and that, as the Foley campaign gained momentum, the issue was worrying more and more Florida Republicans. That, along with the blatantly dishonest and political way Foley dealt with the controversy, was when the congressman's sexuality should have become a legitimate news story.

Foley falsely blames Democrats for "revolting" tactics

Last week, The Palm Beach Post, Foley's hometown newspaper, reported the paper never covered the issue of Foley's sexuality when it came up during his 2003 campaign because "The Post's policy is not to report about a politician's sexual orientation unless it is relevant to a news story." [Emphasis added.] But, of course, Foley's sexual orientation was relevant to a news story; he held a press conference in 2003 in order to address it. At the now-infamous May 22, 2003, press gathering, Foley made sure voters understood he was "disgusted" by the gay talk, that any discussion of his homosexuality was "revolting and unforgivable" and that he wasn't going to be "dragged into the gutter" by "rumormongers." Then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay even rushed to Foley's side and attacked as "despicable" the evildoing "liberal Democratic activists" who were spreading "underhanded" rumors about Foley. (That's the same DeLay who labeled Santorum's slur about homosexuality and bestiality as "courageous.")

That GOP spin was wrong -- and more importantly, newsworthy -- for at least two reasons. Reporters knew Foley was gay (so it was not a "gutter" "rumor"), and it wasn't Democrats working hard to spread the word (it was Republicans). Consider that when writing his initial Foley feature, the New Times' Norman called the Christian Coalition of Florida looking for a quote. He got one: "I imagine you're calling about Mark Foley because he is a homosexual?" the Christian Coalition spokesperson asked, unprompted. I think it's safe to say that when the Christian Coalition is talking to reporters on the record about how a sitting Republican congressman is a closeted gay, that qualifies as news.

Just 10 weeks after his press conference, Foley dropped out of the race, citing his father's poor health as the reason.

But the relevance of Foley's sexuality as a purely political issue did not fade away after 2003. According to conservative columnist Robert D. Novak, late last year Foley was still "under continuous political pressure because of his sexual orientation, [and] was considering not seeking a seventh term" in the House in 2006. This, according to Novak, after the White House made it known to Foley that it would not back him if he attempted a second run for the U.S. Senate in 2006, because he was "unelectable." (That GOP Florida nomination went to Katherine Harris.)

The initial restraint shown by journalists covering Foley who did not want to go peeking behind bedroom curtains was mostly admirable. But as that story evolved, became more public and more political in 2003, journalists should have adjusted their coverage and confronted the popular Republican and given news consumers important context. If they had, editors wouldn't have missed the underage page scandal, which festered for a year thanks to the media's cautious missteps.

Posted In
Government, Ethics
Network/Outlet
Miami Herald
Stories/Interests
Mark Foley Scandal
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