Last October, we got a call from a gay activist blogger saying he was going to “out” Idaho’s senior Sen. Larry Craig on national radio. The blogger’s actions were based on accounts from three men who said they had had sex with the senator. All were anonymous.
The blogger played us a recording of his conversation with one of the sources to persuade us to cover his story.
It was startling and distasteful and showed the blogger’s inexperience with basic reporting or interviewing techniques. He didn’t ask follow-up questions that would help determine the credibility of the source and his story.
We also heard the blogger’s account on the radio, read his blog and watched as at least four Idaho media outlets as well as some national ones covered the event.
As we discussed whether to publish the claims, we sent a reporter to the senator’s home that night. With an allegation this serious, with other media already reporting it, with a national leader’s reputation at stake, I felt strongly we needed to hear from the senator himself.
Meanwhile, Dan Popkey wrote a story. It was a good story, well-written, very detailed, about what we knew at that moment. It was carefully attributed to the blogger’s information.
We could have run that story. And with Idaho’s largest newspaper publishing this news, we would have given it more credibility. More media would have jumped on the bandwagon and published the story.
It would still have been based on a blogger and three anonymous sources. Where was the truth?
Sen. Craig had told us the blogger was wrong, what the anonymous sources were saying wasn’t true.
We didn’t print the story. But we still didn’t know the truth. And that’s what journalists strive to do every day: Pursue the truth and then lay out what they have learned to readers.
We decided it was important to try to find out the truth about these rumors. In a conservative state like ours, whether our senior senator had had sex with other men was something I believed our readers would want to know.
In 1992, I was leading coverage of the presidential campaign for Knight-Ridder’s Washington bureau when rumors of then-candidate Bill Clinton’s extramarital affairs surfaced. Mainstream media shied away from pursuing the truth then, many thinking private affairs were best left private, but later were forced to play catchup as the rumors proved to be true and were published in the alternative press. We did polls that year and learned that whether a leader is faithful in his/her marriage matters to the majority of voters.
Craig had similar rumors dogging him about his sexual orientation. They had been brought to the paper’s attention through the years. Those rumors had never been substantiated.
We decided it was time to do a thorough investigation. What we thought would be a commitment of several weeks, stretched out as Dan got leads and worked to track down people and evidence.
I was hopeful we would be able to report one of two stories: How the senator had been hounded by unfounded rumors throughout his political career, many of them spread by Democrats without a shred of evidence. Or how the married senator had been leading a secret life, denying he was gay and helping set policy on gay issues.
After Dan’s reporting, we sat down with the senator and his wife and explained what we had found. He forcefully denied being gay, of ever having or soliciting sex with men.
So we were left with two accounts: one by the senator, one by a professional man, both believable.
It wasn’t enough. We didn’t print the story. That was a frustrating decision, but not difficult.
I believed we had given our best effort to find the truth. I believed what we had learned would be valuable in assessing future leads. I also believed, over time, we would learn something that would make one account more believable — the senator or his accuser.
That happened last Monday when we learned about the senator’s arrest in Minneapolis in a men’s restroom known for anonymous sex. It was eerily similar to the account we had heard from the professional man in Washington, D.C.
As critical as the senator’s actions were that led to the arrest, more important was what he did after. He didn’t tell anyone. Not his family; not his staff, who had stood by him during the interview in which we laid out what we had learned; not his party leaders; not the voters who trusted and believed in him, his integrity and his honor.
It’s sometimes hard to understand in this Information Age when we are awash in the most intimate details of famous people’s lives how the media could have missed this arrest and guilty plea.
The arrest happened in Minnesota. Even if local reporters there diligently checked the reports of arrests and guilty pleas, would the name Larry Craig have meant anything to them?
But someone knew, and tipped a Washington, D.C., newspaper. As fast as we learned about it, we knew it was time to present to readers, in as much depth as possible, what we had learned about our senator in the last year.
Ultimately each of you will decide what you think about the senator’s actions.
I, for one, am disappointed and saddened. I expect candor and honesty from our leaders. They need to be open about who they are and why they hold the positions they do. I don’t expect them to be perfect, but I do expect them to be accountable for their actions.
Our senior senator did not do that until it was too late. And it is truly our loss.
Vicki Gowler is editor and vice president of the Idaho Statesman. She can be reached at 377-6403.