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How Should The Press Handle Foley's Personal Revelations?

(AP (file))
Actor Mel Gibson launches an anti-Semitic tirade at police while being arrested for drunken driving and checks himself into a rehab center. Congressman Patrick Kennedy crashes his car into a Capitol Hill security barrier and says his painkiller addiction requires treatment. Now-former Congressman Mark Foley enters rehab for an alcohol addiction that absolutely nobody seemed to know about after instant messages emerged revealing him to be at least a virtual sexual predator. As more and more examples emerged, Foley attorney David Roth informs the media that his client wishes them to know he was molested by a "clergyman" when he was a child.

There's a little space between these problems and the infamous "Twinkie defense," used by Dan White, who claimed that the delicious snack cake was what drove him to shoot the mayor of San Francisco in 1978. But to what extent is the public tiring of even the most legitimate causes of unacceptable behavior – and how would you cover it as a reporter, correspondent or editor? Here's how some covered Foley's revelations from yesterday:

On the "CBS Evening News," anchor Katie Couric introduced the story by saying: "More bizarre twists in the growing scandal involving former Florida Congressman Mark Foley. His lawyer acknowledged today that Foley is gay, but denied Foley had sex with congressional pages. And then he made a shocking claim." Correspondent Gloria Borger led her report by saying: "As word spread today of more sordid e-mails between former Congressman Mark Foley and minors, his lawyer took to the microphones late today to deliver this bombshell."

On NBC's "Nightly News," correspondent Chip Reid also put the revelation up front: "Tonight there's another strange twist in this strange story. Mark Foley's attorney revealing that Foley himself was abused as a teenager. Foley's attorney says the new revelation is not intended as an excuse for his client's behavior."

And ABC anchor Charlie Gibson also led into the story by mentioning Roth's statement, calling it a "bombshell" as well.

Brian Skoloff of the Associated Press played it very straight, leading his story with this: "Former Rep. Mark Foley, under investigation for sending lurid Internet messages to young male Capitol Hill pages, issued a series of revelations from rehab, including a claim that he had been sexually abused as a teen."

The New York Times' lead story made mention of the revelation and carried a pretty straight-forward story inside the paper: "In another day of revelations about former Representative Mark Foley, his lawyer said Tuesday that as a teenager, Mr. Foley had been molested by a clergyman and had 'kept the shame to himself' until now. The lawyer also issued the congressman's first public acknowledgment that he is gay."

In its main story, the Los Angeles Times did the same: "As events continued to unfold Tuesday, Foley's lawyer said in a news conference that the lawmaker, who resigned Friday, had been molested by a clergyman when he was a boy. The lawyer also said that Foley was gay but denied that Foley ever had 'inappropriate sexual contact with any minor.'"

But the L.A. paper had a separate story about the attorney's press statement which sounded a more skeptical note: "But Tuesday's news seemed to only complicate the scandal surrounding the six-term congressman. Roth provided almost no detail about the sexual abuse, which he said occurred when Foley was between 13 and 15 years old. Foley, who is Catholic, and his family moved from the Boston area to Florida when Foley was very young."

USA Today didn't mention the molestation charge in its main story but carried a sidebar about it, leading: "The lawyer for former Florida congressman Mark Foley said Tuesday that Foley had been molested as a child by a clergyman and did not have inappropriate sexual contact with congressional pages."

"Lawyer David Roth said Foley, a Republican who represented parts of Palm Beach County in Congress for nearly 12 years, was under the influence of alcohol when he sent overtly sexual messages to teenage male pages. He also divulged that Foley is gay and said the disclosure was part of his client's 'recovery.'"

In the Chicago Tribune, some subtle eyebrows were raised: "Foley's own explanation for his actions became more complicated, with his lawyer calling a news conference to suggest that the former congressman's behavior may be attributable to sexual abuse that Foley now says he suffered as a teenager."

The Miami Herald lead story put it front-and-center: "On a day when Mark Foley's attorney said the former congressman had been molested as a teen by a clergy member, House Speaker Dennis Hastert deflected conservative criticism that he failed to protect congressional pages from Foley's online sexual advances and should resign."

Interestingly, the Washington Post highlighted the apparent contradictions in Foley's various assertions: "Lawyer David Roth told reporters in Florida that Foley was intoxicated when he sent lewd electronic messages to former House pages but was always sober when conducting official business during his 12 years in Congress. Roth said he could not explain new reports of an exchange in which Foley appeared to be having Internet sex with a youth while participating in a House roll-call vote."

"Roth also said that Foley is gay, and that when Foley was 13 to 15 years old he was abused by a clergyman. Foley, who is single and Roman Catholic, will fully cooperate with law enforcement officers and will preserve all records, e-mails and other items they might want to review, Roth said. 'Nothing will be altered,' he said."

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