Senator Craig Airport Scandal Prompts Questions of Journalism Ethics in Covering Politicians’ Personal Lives

The scandal surrounding Sen. Larry Craig’s arrest and guilty plea on disorderly conduct in a Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport restroom led some to raise ethics questions about media coverage of politicians’ personal lives.

According to an Aug. 27, 2007 report in Washington D.C.’s Roll Call, Craig (R-Idaho) was arrested on June 11, 2007 by a plainclothes airport police officer as part of an ongoing sting investigating lewd conduct in a men’s restroom in the Northstar Crossing in the airport’s Lindbergh Terminal. Craig was charged with interference with privacy and disorderly conduct and released. On August 8, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct in the Hennepin County District Court, according to Roll Call. He paid more than $500 in fines and fees, and a 10-day jail sentence was stayed.

In the days following the Roll Call report, other major media organizations followed the story closely. Craig initially said he would resign from his seat in the U.S. Senate, a position he has held since 1990, but later announced he would stay on until his term expires in January 2009.

On October 4, Hennepin County District Court Judge Charles Porter refused Craig’s request to overturn the guilty plea. Craig’s subsequent appeal filed in the state Court of Appeals on October 25 argues that his foot-tapping and hand gestures in the bathroom stall are protected by the First Amendment and that the Minnesota law under which he was charged is unconstitutional.

According to Washington Post media columnist Howard Kurtz, a reporter from the Idaho Statesman had been following allegations about Craig’s sexual behavior for about eight months prior to Roll Call’s August 27 arrest report. Kurtz wrote on August 30 that Statesman reporter Dan Popkey had interviewed dozens of people who knew Craig, including college fraternity brothers and his Idaho neighbors, following public allegations about Craig by gay blogger and Washington fundraising consultant Mike Rogers. Popkey also interviewed Craig and his wife about the allegations in May 2007.

According to Kurtz, the Idaho Statesman said it initially decided not to publish an allegation by an unnamed 40-year-old man who told Popkey he had had sex with Craig in a men’s room at Washington’s Union Station, because it could not corroborate the story and Craig denied it. But the Statesman published the allegation the day after Roll Call published its story based on the Minneapolis Airport Police report.

“The fact that he pleaded guilty corroborated that [earlier] story,” Popkey said. “That’s what tilted the scales away from our prior decision not to publish.”

The Union Station allegation initially appeared on Rogers’ blog on Oct. 17, 2006 (http://www.blogactive.com/2006/10/senator-larry-craig-whats-with-gay.html). According to a September 4 Washington Post profile, Rogers targets politicians who support policy agendas on gay rights that do not match their private homosexual lifestyle, which Rogers calls hypocritical. Rogers pointed out that in 2004 Craig voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that would have banned same-sex marriages. The Washington Post said Rogers has published a list of 33 closeted members of Congress, most of them men, 30 of them Republicans.

Rogers’ first “outing” was in 2004: then-Virginia congressman Ed Schrock, who opposed gays in the military, same-sex marriage, and gay adoption. Schrock decided not to run for reelection because of the rumors, The Washington Post said. Rogers also blogged about Florida congressman Mark Foley in 2005, months before he was forced to resign over inappropriate instant-messages sent to male congressional pages. (For more on the Foley scandal see “Some Media Knew about Foley Messages Since 2005” in the Fall 2006 issue of the Silha Bulletin.)

“I write about closeted people whose records are anti-gay,” Rogers told The Washington Post. “If you’re a closeted Democrat or Republican and you don’t bash gays or vote against gay rights to gain political points, I won’t out you.”

According to Washington Post columnist Kurtz, journalists often hear allegations about politicians’ private lives; deciding whether or not to investigate the rumors as news can be a challenge. Kurtz cited, for example, the long-heard rumors about then-N. J. Gov. Jim McGreevey, who suddenly acknowledged in 2004 that he had had an affair with his state’s homeland security director and resigned. Kurtz also pointed to the Foley e-mail, which the The Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times both initially opted to sit on rather than report because they had no additional corroboration for Foley’s questionable behavior. Kurtz wrote that The Times-Picayune of New Orleans did not publish a local brothel-owner’s claim that Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) was one of his customers until the day after Hustler magazine reported that Vitter’s name was in the phone records of alleged “D.C. Madam” Deborah Jeane Palfrey.

Some argued that although there was a newsworthy aspect to the Craig arrest, it was not where the mainstream media focused. On August 29, The New York Times’ blog “The Lede” highlighted a blog posting by Mark Kleiman that said Craig’s actions after his arrest should have drawn more media attention than the actions that led to the arrest. According to the police report, during questioning Craig showed the arresting officer his identification card as a U.S. Senator and said, “What do you think about that?”.

“Sen. Craig’s attempt to use his official position to intimidate the officer – it’s hard to put any other construction on his words in that context – is an abuse of power,” Kleiman wrote in a post to the blog “The Reality-Based Community,” at http://www.samefacts.com. “Men’s room pickups aren’t much of a threat to the constitutional order; the arrogance that tells public officials that they’re too important to have to obey the law is such a threat.”

According to Kurtz, most mainstream news organizations will not publish a story about a public official’s private sexual conduct based solely on unnamed sources, which could explain reluctance on the part of the Idaho Statesman and New Orleans Times-Picayune in such circumstances surrounding Craig and Vitter.

People like Rogers, meanwhile, can use the Internet to try to stir up frenzy outside the mainstream, according to Tobe Berkovitz, interim dean at Boston University’s College of Communication.

“You’ll always find some blog willing to cover it,” Berkovitz told Kurtz in the August 30 column. “And then it catches fire in the new media and leaps into the old media.”

Berkovitz also said he does not always agree that the choices media make to publish the personal details of public people are good ones.

“For journalists and for voters, hypocrisy is always a hanging crime,” Berkovitz said. “I don’t know if I buy that. Someone’s private behavior either is or is not newsworthy. What their politics are is irrelevant.”

- Patrick File, Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on October 21, 2009 1:00 PM.

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