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Friday, October 06, 2006

BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.

BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. As of this week, thanks to an anonymous blogger and ABC News, we know all about the creepy electronic messages Congressman Mark Foley of Florida sent to his pages. We also learned that two Florida papers, The Miami Herald and The St. Petersburg Times, may have been sitting on the story for almost a year. Here's how it went for The St. Petersburg Times.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In November, the paper obtained a couple of Foley email exchanges that had been forwarded by a page to a friend in another congressional office. The Times knew that the page had given Foley his email address voluntarily and had told his friend in the other office that he'd had no suspicions about Foley. But when Foley asked for a picture, then the page acknowledged that he was uncomfortable. The Times said it saw nothing explicitly sexual and that it was all a little ambiguous.

BOB GARFIELD: So, with no one on the record, they sat on it. It might seem that the paper couldn't win for losing. If their story turned out to be more smoke than fire, it would have been slammed for overkill. St. Petersburg Times executive editor, Neil Brown.

NEIL BROWN: The fallout didn't particularly figure into our thinking, the fallout of printing a thin story. We just don't like to print thin stories. We thought it didn't meet our standard back in November, based on what we had.

BOB GARFIELD: In a "where there's smoke, there must be fire" situation, one argument for running story number one is that it'll generate more information, which is exactly what happened in this case. ABC posted something very brief and relatively innocuous on its website, and, you know, next thing you know, well, you know the next thing. It all blew up. So how much do you torment yourself about what might have been had you run, you know, even a thin story about a congressman's unusual behavior?

NEIL BROWN: I would say we're tormented by it, but you've just described the balancing act we face on something like this. I certainly get the point and understand that good beat reporting sometimes requires a shorter, maybe even less complete story to see if you can shake the bushes. The problem you have is that the innuendo was potentially so damaging and explosive that you've got to weigh your standards on whether you can imply something in hopes that it'll shake something that's even more advanced as far as the story goes.

BOB GARFIELD: The other possibility is that the St. Pete Times was too responsible by half. You know, that you somehow allowed yourself to forget that a grownup asking a teenager for his photo is just unlikely to have an innocent explanation.

NEIL BROWN: I think that's a fair criticism that we're trying to work through. It certainly seems, based on what we know now, that maybe that analysis was too cautious, but we have this benefit of hindsight.

BOB GARFIELD: As events have unfolded, do you think you made the right decision?

BRIAN ROSS: I don't know. I will say we deliberated quite long, and we thought this always was a close call. I know this – we didn't like being scooped. We absolutely wished we'd broken the story sooner. Could we have broken the story sooner based on what we had? I'd like to think that our standards mean something, and just because I know some outcome I didn't know before, I wouldn't suddenly say, oh, oh, we should have done it. We were really sincere and earnest and trying to be responsible. Was it too cautious? I don't know. I think the question we're asking ourselves more directly isn't was that story worthy of publication? It's should we have had a fuller discussion about some next steps, so if not on that day, when we didn't run the story back in November, but sometime between then and when it exploded in the last several days, we could have gotten something into the paper? That's what I really regret, that we didn't find a way to do that.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Neil. Thank you very much.

NEIL BROWN: Thanks for having me.

BOB GARFIELD: Neil Brown is executive editor of The St. Petersburg Times. Brian Ross is chief investigative correspondent for ABC News. He had a tip about Foley's emails too. After a few weeks, he called a page and never heard back, so he went to Foley's office. They said that the emails were authentic, but that Foley was just a friendly guy. That seemed strange enough to Ross that he did a brief item on The Blotter, ABC News's website. Within hours, they received tips from congressional pages offering more, even creepier Foley emails. ABC called Foley's office again, read aloud from one of the new emails, and an hour later, the network got a call saying that Foley was resigning. So I asked Brian Ross, did he think the Florida papers blew it?

BRIAN ROSS: Well, stories beget stories. They do. You know, small burglaries can be big scandals in the end, and questionable emails can also, I think, as we see here, lead to big scandals. Those papers - I respect the people who work at both of the Florida newspapers, made different news judgments, and probably because Foley is a Florida congressman, they felt they couldn't just do a small story on a Florida congressman. They have to do a full-out. From our point of view, he's one of, you know, 435 congressman across the country, and we felt we could do a small item in which there was concern about the emails, a denial from the congressman, and that's what we did.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, you approached Foley's office, and you said, look, we have these emails, let me have an explanation. And you had a very interesting conversation with one of his staffers. Tell me about that, please.

BRIAN ROSS: I did. The call came back, he's going to resign, and we want to make a deal with you. So I got on the phone, and the person who was offering the deal was Foley's former chief of staff, who at the time was working for another Republican congressman, whose name is Kirk Fordham. And he said, I'll give you the exclusive on the resignation. It can be all yours alone. All you have to do is just not publish any of those really, you know, vile instant messages that the congressman wrote. It would be very bad for his family, and so on and so forth. And I said, we're not going to, anyway, out of good taste, publish the worst of it – and we haven't – but I'm not going to make a deal where I have my hands tied in any way editorially by some commitment.

BOB GARFIELD: Clearly, the young people who are, you know, at the heart of this story were not thrilled that it was coming out. Few went on the record, and most, I gather, consider this a chapter that they'd more or less like to forget. But since the story has broken, have you heard from any of these kids or their parents to say, well, you know, upon further consideration, thank you for letting this get out; it's made a difference in our lives?

BRIAN ROSS: I have heard both, to be honest with you. We've received lots of messages – thanks from hundreds of pages. My gosh, somebody finally stood up to them. We thank you. And then some of the pages who are more specifically involved are upset. As you say, it's a chapter of their lives they are not proud of, but I think they have to understand that they were victims of a very manipulative person. You look at those messages back and forth, and that's what it was. He was manipulating these kids who looked up to him, and that's a real scandal, I think, is when there's an abuse of power, and that's what I see in this case.

BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Brian. Always nice to talk to you.

BRIAN ROSS: Great, Bob. Thanks.

BOB GARFIELD: Brian Ross is chief investigative correspondent for ABC News.