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Florida Paper Held Foley Story On Principle

(AP (file))
The stunning and lurid story that hit Washington on Friday afternoon wasn't really news to at least one media outlet. When word got out about sexually suggestive e-mails sent to young congressional pages by Congressman Mark Foley, at least one newspaper was already familiar with part of the story. According to Scott Montgomery, government and politics editor for the St. Petersburg Times, they had been aware of such e-mails for nearly a year but would not publish details because a key source would not go on the record. In a posting on the paper's political blog, Montgomery explains:
In November of last year, we were given copies of an email exchange Foley had with a former page from Louisiana. Other news organizations later got them, too. The conversation in those emails was friendly chit-chat. Foley asked the boy about how he had come through Hurricane Katrina and about the boy's upcoming birthday. In one of those emails, Foley casually asked the teen to send him a "pic" of himself. Also among those emails was the page's exchange with a congressional staffer in the office of Rep. Alexander, who had been the teen's sponsor in the page program. The teen shared his exchange he'd had with Foley and asked the staffer if she thought Foley was out of bounds.

There was nothing overtly sexual in the emails, but we assigned two reporters to find out more. We found the Louisiana page and talked with him. He told us Foley's request for a photo made him uncomfortable so he never responded, but both he and his parents made clear we could not use his name if we wrote a story. We also found another page who was willing to go on the record, but his experience with Foley was different. He said Foley did send a few emails but never said anything in them that he found inappropriate. We tried to find other pages but had no luck. We spoke with Rep. Alexander, who said the boy's family didn't want it pursued, and Foley, who insisted he was merely trying to be friendly and never wanted to make the page uncomfortable.

So, what we had was a set of emails between Foley and a teenager, who wouldn't go on the record about how those emails made him feel. As we said in today's paper, our policy is that we don't make accusations against people using unnamed sources. And given the seriousness of what would be implied in a story, it was critical that we have complete confidence in our sourcing. After much discussion among top editors at the paper, we concluded that the information we had on Foley last November didn't meet our standard for publication.

As more details become available it's pretty clear that the St. Petersburg Times wasn't alone in getting a whiff of this story. It may seem like an easy call in hindsight to say that the paper should have published the story but their policy of not airing accusations against individuals by anonymous sources is a good one and they should be praised for following it.
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