For Idaho Paper And Reporter, Craig Story Posed a Moral Dilemma

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 30, 2007

Dan Popkey, the Idaho Statesman reporter who spent eight months digging into allegations that Larry Craig had engaged in gay sexual encounters, recalls a recent stroll around the Republican senator's childhood ranch with a couple who have known him for decades.

As they showed him the ranch, 24 miles from the nearest paved roads, and Craig's old one-room schoolhouse, says Popkey, "they were weeping at the prospect that he might not be telling the truth."

The 48-year-old columnist, whose paper was accused by Craig of "viciously" mounting a "witch hunt" against him, hardly seems the type to try to ruin someone's career. The Boise resident has written of the joy of stopping with his two children while sheep cross a highway, of the glories of Idaho's fish and wildlife and small-town rodeos.

"This is a horrible thing," says Popkey, who has written about Craig since 1984. "It's a tragedy for Idaho, and I feel for him."

The kind of dilemma facing the Statesman has played out repeatedly in recent years as news organizations have grappled with secondhand accounts about political figures and questionable sexual conduct. Among the issues: What is an adequate level of proof? Are affairs or the hiring of prostitutes, even if documented, fit to print? Or do they require an element of public hypocrisy, such as gay sex involving a lawmaker who holds forth on the sanctity of marriage?

Despite Craig's accusation that the Statesman has been harassing him, the newspaper initially decided not to publish an allegation by an unnamed 40-year-old man that he had had sex with Craig in a men's room at Washington's Union Station.

"The senator said he didn't do things like that," says Vicki Gowler, the paper's editor. "We had a he said/he said situation. We have to be sensitive to people's reputations, whether it's about a senator or a high school principal or an athletic coach."

The Statesman made the allegations public Tuesday only after the newspaper Roll Call reported that Craig had pleaded guilty in a June incident in a Minnesota airport bathroom stall where, an undercover police officer said, Craig appeared to be soliciting sex through hand and foot signals.

"We were not going to line up the anonymous sources and put them against the senior senator," Popkey says. "We were looking for corroboration. The fact that he pleaded guilty corroborated that [earlier] story. That's what tilted the scales away from our prior decision not to publish."

Such allegations rarely arrive out of the blue. In New Jersey, journalists had long heard rumors -- some hinted at on talk radio -- about then-Gov. Jim McGreevey being gay well before he acknowledged in 2004 having an affair with the state's homeland security director. The married Democrat declared himself a "gay American" and promptly announced his resignation.

The Miami Herald and St. Petersburg Times, among others, declined last year to publish a suggestive e-mail from then-Rep. Mark Foley to a teenage House page. Foley, who had been widely rumored to be gay, resigned after ABC's Brian Ross posted the e-mail online and obtained more sexually explicit messages that the Florida Republican had sent to male pages.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune did not publish a local brothel owner's claim that Sen. David Vitter was a customer until the day after Hustler magazine disclosed last month that the Louisiana Republican's number was in the phone records of Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the alleged "D.C. Madam." Other politicians, from Bill Clinton in the 1992 campaign to former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, were dogged by rumors well before they acknowledged being unfaithful to their wives.

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