"No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press. It is, therefore, the first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions." --Thomas Jefferson to John Tyler, 1804.

Craig in review 2: Rights and wrongs

On Wednesday, Idaho Senator Larry Craig’s disorderly conduct case will return to a Minnesota courtroom; there, he is attempting to withdraw his plea of guilty, and service of his sentence, on the charge. Within a few days after that, the Northwest’s senior senator (and its second most senior member of Congress) may – or may not – resign from the Senate. This the second of four essays considering the case, its causes and its effects.

Larry Craig

Larry Craig

We’ve spoken over the years from time to time with Roll Call, the newspaper which covers Capitol Hill, about Northwest politics and politicians – members of Congress and their doings are Roll Call‘s subject matter. Vastly less well known than the Washington Post, it is much more focused, closer to – but still less known than – the Congressional Quarterly, but more immediate in its reports. it may be closest in feel to The Hill, also a newspaper focusing on Congress.

All of these publications are professional, solid and serious. They are not supermarket tabloids, and none of them are where you ordinarily would expect to see an expose about bathroom sex. Yet there it was, on August 27 – Roll Call breaking the political story of the week (month? season?). When it did, it did so not the way some others might: It arrived with police and court reports in hand. This was a story about a senator’s run-in with the law, a run-in hidden from view for more than two months.

But the intersecting subjects of Idaho Senator Larry Craig, gay sex and news reporting has a long and varied history, fit for consideration in college journalism schools coast to coast. (College preferably, since some of the details probably are R-rated.) Eventually, and maybe not too far off, we’ll all see lots of hand-wringing by the usual hand-wringers about how the Craig story was handled over the years, then days and hours after it hit. While events still are fresh, let’s check off a report card on the rights and wrongs.

bullet Pre-2006 non-reporting by Idaho media: Right. This could come off as self-serving – since your scribe, an Idaho newspaper reporter and editor from 1976 to 1990, is among those covered by this first category. Nevertheless: The corps of Idaho news reporters in the three decades before 2006, who were well aware of the rumors about Craig, were right to pass on the story. Part of the reason was simply the common standard of the time, that the public had good reason to know whatever public officials do that affects the public, but not what they did in private – unless you could draw a short and direct line from the private activity to the public. And most of the time, such cases involved business or legal conflicts of interest, not private sexual activity.

This wasn’t squeamishness – some of the reporters certainly would not have minded going after the private lives of some politicians. (Your scribe recalls once an interview with a congressional candidate, well known in reporting circles for his extramarital activities; a question that included only a subtle and glancing reference to them drained the blood from his face.) It was also a recognition of some barrier between public and private. It provided some rationale and reason for why news reports are or should be worth reading: They are or ought to be of general public, not private, use. It also grew out of recognition that some limits, even if self-imposed, are needed so that First Amendment protected speech doesn’t degenerate into . . . what we see at the supermarket checkout. At least on the part of news organizations that try to bear the public interest in mind, in what they do.

Nor was that all. Craig’s private life (along with other political private lives) may have wandered into the rumor mill, but one reason it never went further was that there was no evidence, nothing to turn rumor into established fact. Or even into a case that could be established beyond some reasonable doubt.

One argument, and it went back to at least the late 70s in media circles, echoed something from more recent years: The hypocrisy argument. Craig presented himself as a family man, a backer of family and sexual traditions in opposition to gay rights arguments and legislation. We’ll revisit this point in another essay, but for now we should note something about Craig that moderated our take on this. Craig aligned himself with the political right and with social conservatives, but as a conservative he was focused on business, regulation and finance, and the bedroom issues were not a focus in his campaigns, speechmaking or legislating. He is not a Rick Santorum or Sam Brownback; his manner might seem arch, but he didn’t specialize in holier than thou talk. He didn’t invite the scrutiny into his private life through his public statements. That may be hard to belief after all the recent media short-handing of Craig and his Senate career, but it’s nonetheless true.

bullet The Blogger of Fall: Wrong. Last October, the Craig rumors went public when Mike Rogers, a blogger at www.blogactive.com, reported on that site and later on the Ed Schultz radio program he was “100 percent solid” Craig had engaged in gay sex, and that he had first-person confirmation from partners. Some previous Rogers outings were later confirmed as accurate: He had a track record.

Our reaction was two-fold, and it grew out of the points guiding most media coverage in years past. First, Rogers offered no connection between what he described as Craig’s private life and his public responsibilities: This was a simple outing, of a private life, without any indication of how the public had a stake. Second, he offered no evidence – only allegations. He said he had talked with people who knew, personally, but he did not offer up any names. He offered no possibility for corroboration or double-checking. We noticed the report (which did, after all, echo from years before), but were left unimpressed.

bullet Reporting on the Blogger: Right. The Rogers report created a difficulty for news media in Idaho (and regionally, and including this site): How to deal with it? Our take on it was quick, and paralleled that of several Idaho news organizations. To completely ignore a report broadcast nationally and into Idaho (as it was through the Schultz program) would amount to unwillingness to acknowledge a political thunderclap that had in fact occurred. The initial report may have been deeply flawed, but it was there, it had entered the political environment, and had affected it. It had to be given what a court might call “cognizance”: The bell had been rung, and couldn’t be unrung.

So this site concluded, and ran a short blog item noting the report and also Craig’s quick denial of its allegations; and a statement that we wouldn’t revisit the subject at least until some actual evidence had been proffered. That was similar to the approach taken by some newspapers in the area, including those at Spokane, Pocatello and Lewiston: A short acknowledgment of the report, together with the Craig denial. It was an imperfect solution but, we think in hindsight, the best available.

bullet The Statesman’s Blog Response: Wrong. The Idaho Statesman at Boise took a different approach, wrong in two ways.

First, head-in-sand: Recognition that the Rogers story was short on evidence but no recognition that a great many Statesman readers quickly learned about it, though not from their daily newspaper. In a poorly-reasoned attempt to (apparently) be fair to Craig, the Statesman‘s editors decided to run nothing, obviously including not running Craig’s denial, which means that many Statesman readers heard about the evidence-less allegations from Rogers but not the senator’s response. The silence from the paper was so striking that it eventually drew inquiry from around the industry.

The Statesman‘s eventual response: Try to determine for itself, as conclusively as possible, whether Rogers’ allegation about Craig gay sex activities was true or not. One e-mail to a national gay publication described it as “our significant effort to be thorough and comprehensive and determine the truth before we report.” http://www.pridedepot.com/modules/wordpress/?p=967

We take conceptual issue with this. What was ordered up was an investigation into a person’s private life, without any particular conception that any public interest – other than base curiousity – was involved. The investigation was centered on the question of whether Craig was gay or not. And as we’ve seen in some quarters (including from at least one editor at the Spokane Spokesman-Review, in a comment now deleted) there’s some real and legitimate concern about what may happen when news media decide that investigations into private lives, in and of themselves, are fair game. How many people would feel safe? What does it do to the concept of public interest in the news media? What are the barriers, what are the lines? What can ever be private? A lot of people normally accustomed to support for news organizations and their efforts (such as those manning this site) are likely to be deeply concerned about this conceptual approach.

(Not to mention the obvious news judgment question, even if you throw out all the foregoing: Is an inquiry into the private sex life of an elected official really a useful way to spend more than six months of a reporter’s time?)

bullet Deep Research: Right. If you’re going to do a job, do it right, and this they did: The research into Craig’s life – albeit launched on poor premises – by reporter and columnist Dan Popkey, was exemplary. It hit all the appropriate professional marks, made every stop we could think of and some we wouldn’t have thought of. Popkey estimated he talked with around 300 people; we don’t doubt it.

It was so extensive an investigation that it was no secret at all. We heard it was underway sometime back in the holiday season last year. We had no intent or interest in tracking its progress, and made no attempt to, but in the ordinary course of talking to political and politically-connected people around Idaho, we wound up inadvertently (unavoidably) following its progress in some detail. We talked with a number of the people Popkey talked with, who told us the sense of their interviews. Various written reports from Washington, Boise and elsewhere confirmed progress in various locations. Assigned to find out the truth of Larry Craig’s sex life, Popkey did about as thorough a job as seems imaginable, and took it to a professional appropriate confrontation interview (with other Statesman personnel present) with Craig. The end result: Inconclusive, clear proof one way or the other still elusive.

bullet The Withholding: Wrong. On one level, you have to give credit. Most newspapers which put such massive resources into a single investigation feel duty-bound to report, to issue something showing what they did find (even if only to justify externally the use of resources). The Statesman‘s editors decided that the investigation, while turning up some interesting material, was ultimately inconclusive, and therefore decided not to run a story from it. They were right about the inconclusiveness, and in many other cases would have been right to make that hard decision not to publish. This time, they were wrong.

They were wrong for many of the same reasons they were wrong the previous fall. So extensive was Popkey’s investigation that his direct work had the virtual effect of publication. The hundreds of people he talked to talked in turn to hundreds or (more likely) thousands more. Craig himself remarked that after the first couple of months or so, he could hardly talk to anyone in Idaho who hadn’t been aware of or experienced directly the Statesman‘s inquiry into whether Craig was gay. The sheer size of the investigation had the effect of taking the whole issue public, in every way except on the Statesman‘s printed pages.

Certainly it was public elsewhere. Blogs wrote about it, of course, but so did the Boise Weekly, other national publications, gay publications and more. In this day of Google, a search for something like “Larry Craig gay” would have turned up a batch of hits by early summer from a wide range of sources, more of them generated from Popkey’s work than from Roger’s original blast. The story was public already; the Statesman simply refused to acknowledge it. And by – in that backhanded way – stoking the rumor mill, any opportunity Craig had to tell his side was denied, for a second time.

Given that the investigation was inconclusive, how might it have been reasonably handled? Could have been run in a regular Popkey column, in which he wrote – in abridged form – about the direction and scope of the investigation, what it involved, how it failed to determine positively what it set out to, and what Craig said in response. A perfect answer to a difficult situation? Of course not. But it would at least have offered some facts instead of rumor, and would have been fairer to both readers and to Craig.

bullet The Roll Call report: Right. As suggested at the top: The Washington newspaper Roll Call was right to report Craig’s Minneapolis run-in with the law. Hardly any of the concerns applying up to this point applied once that happened. Any time a senator bumps heads with the law, down to and including a speeding ticket, that’s news, even if only a short blurb. No rumor or speculation was involved, only a police report and a guilty plea.

bullet The Circus: Wrong. Yeah, yeah, there’s been no lack of entertainment out of all this, a good deal of it brought on by the senator himself. But at what point does it overwhelm compassion or humanity? Or even common sense?

We may have passed that point, some time ago . . .

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One Comment

  1. Had Sen Craig stayed out of the Republican sex circus act I’d be perfectly happy to leave him alone and happy if he’d been left alone, but there’s an obvious conflict of interest, and that was one of the criteria you mentioned. Sen Vitter had the same conflict, I’m not willing to overlook such behaviors linked to Bills or Amendments of national importance. If you decide to legislate morality rather than civil order, you had best expect to be scrutinized on that basis.

    I fail to see the difference between taking a candidate to task for saying they wouldn’t take lobby dollars and then getting caught doing so, not even misdemeanor behavior – in fact encouraged by the system – but electorially damaging.

    September 23, 2007

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