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Out, Out Damn Rumors

(CBS/AP)
On Wednesday, the Spokane Spokesman-Review made the controversial decision to run a story about rumors swirling around Idaho Senator Larry Craig – a story that likely never would have seen the light of day a few short years ago. The basics of the story are as follows: Gay-rights activist Mike Rogers claimed on his blog and a syndicated radio program that confidential sources had provided him information concerning consensual homosexual relationships involving Craig. The senator responded to the story through a spokesperson, calling it "completely ridiculous."

You can read the paper's story here for the background and comments by Rogers and Craig's spokesperson. What makes this particular incident an interesting test case, though, is not the detail -- it's the existence of the story itself. Until recently, the traditions of journalism would have kept such a story from being written. Rumors, of course, have always been a staple of politics, but news outlets have traditionally shied away from repeating those rumors out of concern that doing so would provide a level of validation. News organizations also legitimately feel that they would be doing the dirty work of political opponents to push rumor and innuendo.

None of that is to say legitimate journalists couldn't try to look into such rumors, but the old rules mandated real evidence be produced before a public airing. In today's atmosphere, however, when rumors can fly around the world in an instant, there is a direct challenge to the media's old way of dealing with such stories. If the media ignores it, they appear oblivious to the world they purportedly are covering. If they cover it, they're open to charges of rumor-mongering. So what to do?

Allow me a personal reflection on this issue. During the 2004 presidential campaign, a rumor suddenly surfaced one day about a relationship between John Kerry and a young lady – the dreaded "intern" story. Of course there was absolutely nothing to the rumor and it faded very quickly, but not before roiling the campaign and the press for two or three days. As the Editor of the Hotline, the bible of American political news, we faced the same decision as every other new outlet – to report on or ignore the rumor.

We decided to make note of the attention this rumor was receiving for a very simple reason – millions of people were hearing and talking about it. The rumor was on the Drudge Report where it instantly was picked up and made the rounds of radio talk shows, blogs and other Internet sites. Rush Limbaugh was talking about it and the Kerry campaign was in near-crisis mode chasing it down along with mainstream journalists. The fact is, nobody could prove or disprove the rumor at that instant but it was having a real impact on the campaign. That in and of itself was newsworthy.

Kerry himself addressed the rumor on the "Imus" show a day or so later, which let some media outlets who ignored it altogether off the hook by giving them a "candidate-denies-rumor" peg as a way to address it. But the genie was clearly out of the bottle – in the Internet age, the MSM no longer controls what people hear and see. I'm sure many journalists shook their heads at our decision to cover the incident, just as many are likely disappointed that the Spokesman-Review would cover these totally unsubstantiated rumors about Senator Craig (something we're also doing in this post).

I agree with the instincts which demand caution in the face of such stories but also understand the reality – widespread gossip can have real-world impact. So where do you draw the line these days? I think we're all still trying to figure that one out. On their blog, the Spokesman-Review explained its internal deliberations. This is from a post by Spokesman-Review blogger Ken Paulman Tuesday:

Earlier today, an activist blogger claimed on a nationally syndicated radio show that Idaho Sen. Larry Craig is gay. Political reporter Jim Camden is working on a story, and there was a discussion at this afternoon's meeting about how we should cover this.

Background and links are posted at Huckleberries Online, but in a nutshell, the activist claims that he's talked to four men who say they've had sex with Craig. There's no accusation of any crime or impropriety, but the blogger cites what he characterizes as a hypocritical voting record as a reason for the outing.

If our reporters had uncovered this information, it's unlikely we would run a story. However, because this information is already circulating through other media, it's a different situation.

"We can't ignore it," said managing editor Gary Graham. "If we start ignoring that kind of discussion in a media context, we take ourselves down a slippery slope."

The story will include a reaction from Sen. Craig, who denies the assertions.

"We actually do Craig a service by letting him respond in print," Graham said.

It wasn't an easy decision, and some at the paper worried about the example it set, as was clear from this Wednesday post:
One argument against running the story, which I posed yesterday and again this morning, is that it enables unsubstantiated assertions made on blogs and talk radio to become legitimized in the mainstream press.

Sports editor Joe Palmquist shared this concern. "I worry about the precedent a little bit," he said. "There's crap like this all over the place - it never makes the paper."

But the media universe is also changing, and stories that circulate through the blogosphere are no longer reaching only a specific niche audience.
"There seemed to be critical mass on this one," reporter Jim Camden said.