Why We Didn't Publish a Foley Story Last Year
St. Petersburg Times executive editor Neil Brown weighed in today on why we didn't publish a story on Mark Foley's creepy contacts with Congressional pages before the last week or so.
I'm glad he's written this piece, and I wish he'd done it sooner. As I've written before, I think the Internet has aggregated information and empowered readers to the point where you can't just blow off substantive questions they have about coverage decisions or ethical issues. As bigger outlets than ours have discovered, it is often best to tell readers why you make the decisions you do soon as possible -- and a well-meaning blog post by our government editor just didn't cut it.
What Neil wrote isn't much different from what many have read in our news coverage and a column by Howard Troxler that touched on this -- we got the milder emails, did some investigation and, faced with a single source who was creeped out but wouldn't go on the record and whose parents begged us not to expose him, we begged off.
Frankly, I'm not convinced by all the Monday morning quarterbacking now; I don't think we made an awful decision. It was an understandable judgment call that should teach us to push a little harder in the future.
I'm more interested in what Neil noted later in the piece -- that it took a blogger publishing the milder emails, and ABC News using that publication as an excuse to re-publish them on their Web site, to shake loose the more explicit emails that forced Foley's resignation.
It's the new pipeline for traditional media. In the past, we used to pick up on the occasional scoop by tabloids like the National Enquirer or the Star, which turned out to be accurate. Now, blogs have become the mainstream media's new stalking horse -- airing the kind of questionable stuff we would never risk our reputations by revealing, allowing us to pick up on the real stories when they emerge from the fog of badly-sources allegations an whispered rumors.
It reminds me a bit of the tactic employed by a local TV station's investigative unit some time ago. I remember noting several stories where they would broadcast an initial story filled with innuendo and possibilities. And, as the community responded to their initial broadcasts with tips and new information, the pieces would get more and more solid until they had great investigative stories airing. But getting there meant airing at least one story that wasn't nailed down enough for my comfort and made often-unfair allegations.
Remeber the blog which reported for weeks that presidential advisor Karl Rove had cut a deal with prosecutors in the CIA leak case and was about to resign? What if we would have printed that without proper substantiation?
I'm amazed at some of the folks who seem to want us and other quality news outlets to indulge the same incremental journalism -- publishing stories which might be half right in order to get to a final truth somewhere down the line.
Even as a blogger, I can't support that approach. Push us to work harder to break a story, for sure. But don't ask that we lower our standards to get something in the paper which -- in 20/20 hindsight -- we now know was true.
And I'd be writing this, even if it was just the Miami Herald which had turned away from the story.
How Far will CBS' Free Speech Actually Go?
Katie Couric has written on her CBS News blog to defend the "FreeSpeech" commentary aired in which the father of a victim in the Columbine High School shootings blames the evils of such situations on rampant secularism.
Couric's defense: "We knew when we decided to put on this segment that a lot of people would disagree with it. We also knew some might even find it repugnant. (Some of you made that point loud and clear!)
But that is the very essence of what we try to do with the “freeSpeech” segment. This is a platform for our viewers to hear from a wide range of people – those who may share your views, and those who don’t."
So, I'm waiting for the Free Speech segment featuring an athiest who believes the root of most war in the world these days is rampant religiosity. Or an activst who believes giant media corporations like CBS owner Viacom have kept their own viewers/readers/listeners ignorant about issues like media consolidation and its impact on news coverage.
Or the progressive who believes the capitalist system has fostered some of the country's worst inequality.
I fear Couric and Co. are following the pattern of cable news -- allowing the most extreme traditionalist voices to have their say, while keeping those who are equally extreme on the progressive side off their radar.
I can't wait for CBS' newly-minted anchor to prove me wrong.