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Is It The Media's Job To Put Rumors To Rest?

It hasn't yet become standard practice, but the trend of newspapers investigating and publishing rumors surrounding politicians does appear to be growing. The latest example surfaced in Ohio last week (hat tip: Romenesko) when the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a front-page story addressing unsubstantiated rumors making the rounds about gubernatorial candidate Ted Strickland.

Unlike a similar situation in Idaho, this story had a hint of a news peg, provided by Strickland's opponent, Republican Ken Blackwell. During a recent debate, Blackwell brought up charges that Strickland had protected an associate accused of inappropriate behavior. As the Plain Dealer put it, Blackwell accused Strickland of "covering up for a campaign staff member who exposed himself to children and supporting the platform of NAMBLA, the North American Man/Boy Love Association." According to the story, that accusation spread and grew in subsequent days, and, "in turn, Strickland, meeting with reporters and editors at the Cincinnati Enquirer, broke character and angrily asserted his heterosexuality."

With a bit of a peg on which to hang the story, the Plain Dealer ran its story. And, while not everyone was comfortable with it, the realization is setting in that more and more, news outlets must address these kinds of topics. Plain Dealer ombudsman Ted Diadiun took up the issue in his Sunday column:

Some people will say that's good -- that the paper's responsibility is to print the news and let readers decide what is believable. The argument has merit, but it stretches the definition of "news," and ignores our responsibility to confirm stories and to not publish things we know to be untrue.

The Plain Dealer walked that line with a Page One story last Thursday.

Under the headline, "Tabloid-style claims twist governor's race," Columbus bureau chief Ted Wendling shined a light on some of the charges that have been directed at Democratic candidate Ted Strickland in the closing weeks of an increasingly unsavory campaign.

Not a person I've talked to in the newsroom -- not Wendling, not the editor who assigned the story, not editor Doug Clifton -- believed any of the accusations. I'm not going to recount them here, but all had to do with allegations of various sex-related charges against Strickland, to the point where the frustrated candidate found himself asserting his heterosexuality in a recent meeting with reporters and editors at the Cincinnati Enquirer.

All the allegations were checked by Plain Dealer reporters and found to be unsupported, meaningless or distorted. Ten years ago, that story would never have seen the light of day.

So why did it run this year? Because it would have been irresponsible, unfair to Strickland and unfair to our readers NOT to run it.

Diadiun tells us that not everyone at the paper thought the decision to investigate and run the story was the right move, but notes that, "in the end, the readers got the truth and the rumor died a deserved death." Isn't that all we can ask?
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