Journalistic reporting should not be rumor

There are rumors that speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill) knew about recently disgraced congressional representative Mark Foley’s “proclivities” months ago and did nothing about it. If that sounds bad, take heart. The St. Petersburg Times definitely had reason to suspect, but did nothing about it.

Scott Montgomery, the Times’ government and politics editor, released a statement on behalf of the newspaper in “The Buzz,” which is “a public forum sponsored and maintained by the St. Petersburg Times.” In it, he states that the Times had been given reason to suspect that Foley had asked another teenage male in the congressional page system for a “pic” almost a year ago. Two reporters were assigned to the story, but the young man would not go on the record about what happened, nor about how he felt regarding it. Therefore, the Times did not run the story.

And yet a vast number of people disagree with that decision. The article on “The Buzz” has received 197 responses to Montgomery’s “Note from the Editor,” and they are almost resoundingly negative – accusing the Times of sitting on the story when it shouldn’t have, thereby endangering future young congressional pages.

The thing that many of these comments seem to miss is that it isn’t a journalistic instinct to discover damning information about an elected official and do nothing about it. Such action, in essence, defeats the purpose of journalism. The Fourth Estate exists precisely to reveal the dirty laundry of public persons to the public in order to maintain accountability. There is nothing more valuable than information.

If the Times had run with the story at the time, they would have had a story from a source that would not go on record. They had material, but none of it was explicitly sexual. Foley could have responded with fury, saying that the Times was attacking him with charges that were entirely unsubstantiated at the time. Not only would the Times have been endangering their reputation by becoming a rumor mill, they would also potentially be susceptible to charges of libel.

Journalists aren’t law enforcement officials, nor are they omniscient. The only way for journalists to operate in a dignified and respectful manner is to print what they can prove and to use their best judgment. The Times used its judgment almost a year ago, and was right not to print the story. The Times, after all, is not the Weekly World News.