The press and Mark Foley, Part II

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

The televised back-and-forth was brief, just 20 seconds, tops, but for lots of news hounds, it was long overdue and stands out as the media's high-water mark of the still-unfolding Mark Foley scandal. It happened on October 8, when CNN's Wolf Blitzer was interviewing Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), who was excitedly demanding to know if Democrats were behind the release of the emails at the center of the Foley sex scandal. Blitzer, though, was having none of it. He swooped in and repeatedly asked for any specifics -- proof -- to back up the Republican conspiracy theory:

The televised back-and-forth was brief, just 20 seconds, tops, but for lots of news hounds, it was long overdue and stands out as the media's high-water mark of the still-unfolding Mark Foley scandal. It happened on October 8, when CNN's Wolf Blitzer was interviewing Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), who was excitedly demanding to know if Democrats were behind the release of the emails at the center of the Foley sex scandal. Blitzer, though, was having none of it. He swooped in and repeatedly asked for any specifics -- proof -- to back up the Republican conspiracy theory:

BLITZER: Well, you don't have any evidence, though, right?

McHENRY: Well, look at the fact points. Four weeks out from a national election --

BLITZER: Yes or no: Do you have any evidence, Congressman?

McHENRY: Do you have any evidence that they weren't involved?

BLITZER: I'm just asking if you're just throwing out an accusation or if you have any hard evidence.

The sharp back-and-forth generated buzz when the clip was posted online, and lots of liberals cheered Blitzer's tough interview.

What's so disconcerting is we're at the point where we've forgotten what actual journalism looks like, and when we see it live on television, it's treated like a revelation. In truth, there should have been absolutely nothing unusual about Blitzer's fair-but-tough line of questioning. Yet the sad fact is, it was more than a week into the scandal before someone like Blitzer confronted a Republican and demanded he show some evidence for the Republicans' vast left-wing conspiracy claim, which was first stitched together by Rush Limbaugh. (a.k.a. the "What did Nancy Pelosi know and when did she know it?" defense, as blogger Billmon labeled it.)

Prior to Blitzer's mini-showdown (and even after it), too many journalists on the Foley beat were willing to simply amplify Republican claims that Democrats, in an elaborate and stealthy scheme, had pulled all the strings to orchestrate an October Surprise. Wed too tightly to the "he said, she said" model of reporting and always nervous about a Republican backlash on big stories, the media chose for days to repeat baseless Republican charges of Democratic complicity.

In fact, as Media Matters noted just prior to Blitzer's sharp questioning, CNN itself was perhaps the worst offender of this parroting practice. On 27 separate occasions last Thursday, October 5, the all-news channel aired Speaker of the House Dennis J. Hastert's unsubstantiated and false claims that Democrats were behind the Foley story. Twenty-seven times without mentioning the fact that ABC News, which broke the Foley story, had already confirmed its key source was a Republican, or that The Hill newspaper also reported the emails allegedly sent by Foley were coming from Republican sources. CNN was just completely oblivious -- it seemed purposely so -- to pertinent, public facts about the story it was covering.

The Foley scandal has quickly morphed into that Bush-era rarity: a Republican political train wreck, featuring a runaway story, inner-party finger-pointing, and a Republican leadership that's been incapable of significantly altering the storyline. (Have Bush Republicans ever played defense so poorly on a breaking story?) It seemed if anything were going to shake the mainstream press out of its recent signature timidity, it should have been a wide-open story like the Foley scandal.

Let's acknowledge up front that there has been some excellent reporting to date, and obviously ABC News deserves credit for pursuing a delicate story that lots of other mainstream media outlets consciously passed on.

But news consumers were still seeing telltale signs of a cautious press corps, and one that's settled into an unfortunate comfort zone regarding the Foley story, content with treating it mostly as a political one and trying to gauge the implications for November 7. Instead, the media should be zeroing in on the glaring contradictions -- and obvious falsehoods -- found within the Republicans' defense, along with the apparent shoddiness, even possible malfeasance, with which they investigated the matter -- both when they received warnings about Foley's behavior months ago and after the story broke, when they should have been securing files and trying to nail down what happened.

And keep in mind those were precisely the types of issues that sent the D.C. press corps into sustained overdrives during the Clinton years, when they covered crucial stories like the personnel changes at the White House Travel Office and how many gifts the Clintons received when they returned to private life.

The White House and Mark Foley

To date, the press has devoted little attention to the White House and its possible role in the Foley story. Yet according to two recent accounts, White House aides this year were deeply involved in steering Foley's career. Conservative columnist Robert Novak noted last week that within the GOP, Foley was "under continuous political pressure because of his sexual orientation" and that "White House aides" discouraged Foley from running for the Senate this year because they viewed him as "unelectable." (Katherine Harris got the GOP nomination instead.) In 2003, Foley aborted his first run for the Senate when his closeted homosexuality became a point of contention among conservative Republicans in Florida.

Locked out of a Senate run, Foley contemplated retirement this year. But according to The New Republic, a source close to Foley says "the White House and Rove gang" insisted he run for re-election so the party would not have to defend an open seat in his district.

So, the White House did not want Foley to run for the Senate in 2006, likely fearing his homosexuality would again become a turbulent issue in a statewide race, but the White House did want Foley to run for re-election in his safe Florida district. There's no evidence to date that the White House knew about Foley's interactions with teenage boys, but their recent hands-on dealings with him do open up avenues of legitimate inquiry.

Meanwhile, what's given the story legs beyond the shocking disclosure of Foley's allegedly sexual communications with teenage boys is whether the Republican leadership in the House ignored the warning signs simply to make sure they retained control of the chamber in November. To date, the circumstantial evidence suggests the answer is yes and that Speaker of the House Hastert himself enabled Foley's transgressions by not acting decisively. Unfortunately for Hastert and Republicans, the speaker's version of events -- his preferred timelines -- appears to be in tatters.

Hastert insists that he never knew about the R-rated instant messages Foley allegedly wrote until ABC News reported them and that he didn't even know there was a PG Foley-page problem until this year. But consider this:

  • ABC News, citing a current Hill staffer, reported that Hastert's chief of staff "met with disgraced former Rep. Mark Foley to discuss the time and attention Foley was giving House pages years before the speaker's office admits becoming aware of the issue."
  • Foley's former chief of staff Kirk Fordham has reportedly told investigators that he was so alarmed by Foley's excessive friendliness with the young male pages in 2003 that he arranged a private meeting with Hastert's top aide, Scott Palmer, to discuss the potentially damaging situation. Fordham claims Palmer later confirmed with him that he'd spoken with Hastert and that the situation had been taken care of. (Palmer denies Fordham's account.)
  • Two members of Hastert's House GOP leadership team, Majority Leader John Boehner (OH) and National Republican Congressional Committee chairman Tom Reynolds (NY), both say they told Hastert last spring about Foley's communications with teenage pages.

And then there's the convoluted tale told by Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-AZ). The press's mishandling of this story highlights the tentativeness that still hovers around the scandal coverage.

Approximately six years ago, a former Kolbe-sponsored page contacted the congressman because he said he was uncomfortable with the email messages he was receiving from Foley. According to Kolbe's spokeswoman, the former page showed Kolbe the messages in question, and Kolbe then confronted Foley about his behavior. The story was first reported in the October 9 Washington Post.

The only point of contention in the article was whether Kolbe had been shown explicit emails. The Post reported yes; Kolbe's spokeswoman denied the characterization of the emails as being sexually explicit. Kolbe, the only openly gay Republican member of Congress and, by some accounts, a close friend of Foley's, had already planned to retire at the end of the congressional session.

The story was a shocker because it pushed back by many years the time frame of when Republicans in Congress first understood that Foley had a page problem, and, as the Post noted, it widened the circle of senior Republicans who knew about the situation. In other words, if the Kolbe story were accurate it represented a dagger through the heart of the Republican leadership and its often wobbly insistence that news of the Foley problem only reached them in recent months.

That was reported in the October 9 Post. That day, Kolbe's spokeswoman changed her story and told The New York Times the congressman couldn't remember whether he had ever confronted Foley about the 2000 emails.

Then on October 10, Kolbe's office issued a formal statement that essentially contradicted everything Kolbe's spokeswoman had said to the Post. Kolbe suddenly insisted the former page had never personally shown him the emails, that he never saw any sexually explicit exchanges, that he never confronted Foley about the emails, and that he simply passed along the page's complaint to Foley's office, as well as to the clerk of the House. Basically, in the span of 48 hours, Kolbe rewrote history.

Also, note the oddity of Kolbe saying he passed the information along to the clerk of the House. Odd, because just two days earlier, Kolbe's flack told the Post that after the Foley scandal broke, Kolbe's office got in touch with the former page and suggested he contact the clerk with his information about the 2000 emails -- the obvious question being, if Kolbe forwarded the information to the clerk of the House in 2000, as he now says he did, why did Kolbe's office tell the page to contact the clerk's office again in 2006?

That part of the story, like nearly every aspect of the story coming from Kolbe's office, appeared to be an obvious contradiction. Yet rather than exploring and highlighting the dramatic inconsistencies, the press looked away. Look at how The Arizona Republic reported the news of the October 10 statement from the Arizona congressman's office. In its article, the Republic never addressed whether Kolbe did or did not confront Foley in 2000, and the Republic article never addressed whether the emails Kolbe saw in 2000 were sexually explicit or not. The two central, contested points of Kolbe's evolving story were completely ignored by the Republic, which allowed Kolbe to find new footing at will.

The newspaper was hardly alone. The Associated Press took the same path on the afternoon of October 10, dutifully reporting on Kolbe's newest explanation without pointing out that the story completely contradicted what The Washington Post reported on October 9, most of which was confirmed by Kolbe's spokeswoman. Ditto the Chicago Tribune and The Wall Street Journal.

Even The Washington Post by October 11 was simply reprinting Kolbe's statement without noting to readers that the congressman's new version of events did not match the previous version that his spokeswoman had confirmed to the daily just 48 hours earlier. Amazing. (Credit CNN.com for doing an honest examination of the obvious Kolbe contradictions.)

Making stuff up

That willingness to turn a blind eye no doubt emboldened Republicans to make up lots of other stuff. For instance, the tall tale that Hastert had taken decisive action and leveled an angry ultimatum against Foley the minute the speaker learned about the allegedly explicit instant messages.

  • "The fact is, what Denny Hastert did is something that we haven't seen done in 30 years in this town in Washington, D.C., and that is he said to a member of Congress, either you go or we're going to make you go. That happened the moment that Denny Hastert found out about this." Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman, appearing on Fox News' Your World with Neil Cavuto, Oct. 6.
  • "The speaker's office acted proactively. They acted aggressively and within hours -- within hours of the explicit emails coming to light, they demanded Foley's resignation." Rep. Adam Putnam (R-FL), appearing on ABC's This Week, Oct. 8.

The problem, as bloggers noted, was that the spin was a complete fabrication. Here's what Hastert said on Oct. 2:

When they [the explicit emails] were released, Congressman Foley resigned. And I'm glad he did, if he had not, I would have demanded his expulsion from the House of Representatives. [emphasis added]

There was never a my-way-or-the-highway moment between Hastert and Foley. Yet I cannot find a single example of any mainstream media reporter or pundit who highlighted the disturbing fact that senior Republican Party operatives, in a coordinated effort, were going on television and clearly lying about the already-established Foley timeline, a timeline that was barely a week old.

I also cannot find any high-profile examples of the press asking tough questions about the path of the official Foley investigation. For instance, why did the FBI wait six days before sending a "preservation letter" up to Capitol Hill, instructing the House of Representatives to preserve all documents related to Foley's communication with male teenage pages? (This is the same FBI that dismissed the importance of the alleged Foley emails this summer when copies were sent to the agency.) And what about the fact Hastert's chief of staff, Palmer, last week was reportedly "rummaging through old emails and files" in search of any proof that he met with Kirk Fordham to discuss the Foley issue. Shouldn't it be law-enforcement officials or the House ethics committee who are doing the rummaging, not potential targets of an investigation?

The press needs to drill down and focus in on the still-obvious questions and contradictions that surround the politically embarrassing saga. They did it with glee for years during the Clinton administration. They ought to be able to do it during a Bush-era scandal.

Posted In
Elections, Government, Ethics
Network/Outlet
CNN
Person
Wolf Blitzer
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.