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Last November, the St. Petersburg Times got its hands on "ambiguous" – and not sexually explicit – emails from Mark Foley to a congressional page from Louisiana. The emails included Foley's (now infamous) request for a "pic," and the page admitted they made him uncomfortable.

The Times, in what Executive Editor Neil Brown calls "a close call," elected not to run a story. Yesterday he explained why: (link via Romo)

I led deliberations with our top editors, and we concluded that we did not have enough substantiated information to reach beyond innuendo.

We were unsuccessful in getting members of Congress who were involved in the matter or those who administer the House page corps to acknowledge any problem with Foley's ambiguous e-mail or to suggest that they thought it was worth pursuing.

And we couldn't come up with a strong enough case to explain to a teenager's parents why, over their vehement pleas to drop the matter, we needed to make their son the subject of a story - and the incredible scrutiny that would surely follow.

It added up to this conclusion: To print what we had seemed to be a shortcut to taint a member of Congress without actually having the goods.

The emails came out, of course – on an anonymous blog, and then on That's when the floodgates opened. As it turned out, "the goods" were there.

The paper is reviewing its decision, and Brown admits that it perhaps should have been more dogged in its pursuit of the story. But he also sounds what I think is an important note in the Times' defense. "The Foley scandal broke with a raw posting not guided by journalistic convention or rules of credibility. This posting yielded an important story. But so many other allegations are aired online with little regard for accuracy and fairness. The political online world is full of those who trade in rumor and gossip, tout the instances when they were right, but pay little price for the mountains of information that prove to be false and hurtful."

The difference between mainstream media outlets and people like Matt Drudge is that the former often err on the side of restraint, whereas the latter tend to throw everything up against the wall and see what sticks. Even if it means occasionally missing a story, I think there's something to be said for the traditional approach.

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