Why the Times didn't publish the Foley e-mails

Our decision not to publish a story last November was a close call. We decided to hold off. Here's why.

By NEIL BROWN, Executive Editor
Published October 5, 2006

In the days before the September primary, this newspaper was tipped to allegations about the personal life of Republican gubernatorial front-runner Charlie Crist, including a charge that he was involved in a paternity dispute over the birth of a girl 17 years ago.

Although it was just before the primary and we understood that his political enemies might well be behind it, we vigorously pursued the story. The moment we had a story that we believed was fair to the attorney general and that went no further than the facts we could substantiate, we published it. That happened the day before the primary.

We deliberated extensively before publishing that story. Newspapers are reluctant to run controversial stories so close to an election, when the subject has little time to react. Still, we decided to publish a story we were convinced was relevant, accurate and fair. In fact, the St. Petersburg Times was one of only three newspapers to print the paternity story, though many others had much of the same information.

In short, we try whenever possible to publish what we know rather than keep it out of the paper.

Meanwhile, on the political blog that we host, called The Buzz, anonymous politicos of all stripes were making even worse - and so far unsubstantiated - allegations about Crist. That had become a regular occurrence on our blog and others where anonymous postings are a fixture. So as our paternity dispute story was hitting the streets, the blog was full of accusations that we were either sabotaging the Crist campaign or protecting the St. Petersburg native by failing to print rumors about him.

Which brings us to the Mark Foley scandal.

Last November, we chose not to publish a story about how the Republican congressman sent cryptic, though arguably inappropriate, e-mails to a former congressional page from Louisiana.

Let's be clear: The e-mails we obtained were not at all sexually explicit. As Tom Fiedler, my counterpart at the Miami Herald, said, they were "ambiguous." Further, the page had provided Foley with his e-mail address voluntarily and had acknowledged in an e-mail to a friend that he initially had no suspicions about the congressman. We later tracked down the page, who told us that the e-mails made him uncomfortable. We also interviewed another page who had received e-mails from Foley and found nothing inappropriate.

Still, the Louisiana page had forwarded the e-mails to a congressional staff member asking for guidance. The Foley exchange - including the request for a "pic"- seemed creepy. Was I being paranoid? the page wanted to know.

Our decision not to publish was a close call. We decided to hold off. Why?

I led deliberations with our top editors, and we concluded that we did not have enough substantiated information to reach beyond innuendo.

We were unsuccessful in getting members of Congress who were involved in the matter or those who administer the House page corps to acknowledge any problem with Foley's ambiguous e-mail or to suggest that they thought it was worth pursuing.

And we couldn't come up with a strong enough case to explain to a teenager's parents why, over their vehement pleas to drop the matter, we needed to make their son the subject of a story - and the incredible scrutiny that would surely follow.

It added up to this conclusion: To print what we had seemed to be a shortcut to taint a member of Congress without actually having the goods.

We paid for that restraint last week when we got scooped by an anonymous blogger - not a reporter - who posted the ambiguous e-mails on a Web site titled Stop Sexual Predators. When Foley's election opponent seized on it and called for an investigation, ABCnews.com ran with the story. That provoked former pages to come forward with the stunning set of sexually explicit instant messages that led to Foley's resignation and a tidal wave of political fallout.

Nobody in the news business likes to get scooped. We're not happy about it. We're also not alone.

The Miami Herald had the same e-mails. In Washington, several other mainstream news organizations apparently have had the ambiguous e-mails (which had been making their way around the Capitol corridors for some months), yet took a pass on publication. That's absolutely not an excuse from our perspective. It simply reflects that our judgment, agree or disagree, was not an unusual one.

Knowing what we know now, our judgment seems much more debatable than it did at the time. Our journalistic intentions were honorable, but second-guessing our performance is absolutely fair game.

In the wake of the Foley story, we're reviewing what we did. After we opted not to publish, should we - the top editors of the paper - have had a fuller discussion on whether there was a smoking gun, and what would it have taken to find it? Instead of pursuing a Palm Beach County congressman little-known to our readers, we decided to focus on local issues and politics and other investigations.

But as we take a fair bit of heat for our journalistic restraint, it's worth noting the dynamics of the modern media marketplace. The Foley scandal broke with a raw posting not guided by journalistic convention or rules of credibility. This posting yielded an important story. But so many other allegations are aired online with little regard for accuracy and fairness. The political online world is full of those who trade in rumor and gossip, tout the instances when they were right, but pay little price for the mountains of information that prove to be false and hurtful.

That's not the standard we aspire to at our flagship newspaper. We will always try to publish information when we can stand fully behind it, but our standard of fairness and credibility, even in a scandal like the Foley case, needs to mean something. Even if it slows us down.