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.
It is hardly unusual for an elected official facing such allegations to make the press the issue. When the Spokane Spokesman-Review reported in 2005 that Jim West, then the city's mayor, had offered gifts and an internship to what he thought was an 18-year-old man online, West complained that the paper was fomenting "media hysteria." West, now deceased, was ousted in a recall election after the sting orchestrated by the newspaper.
Media accounts stressed that Craig and Vitter had built careers on a platform of morality and family values. A Statesman editorial yesterday noted that Craig had supported constitutional and state amendments banning same-sex marriage.
"For journalists and for voters, hypocrisy is always a hanging crime," says Tobe Berkovitz, interim dean at Boston University's College of Communication. "I don't know if I buy that. Someone's private behavior either is or is not newsworthy. What their politics are is irrelevant."
While most journalists are "properly skittish" of rumor and sexual innuendo, Berkovitz says, in today's digital culture "you'll always find some blog willing to cover it. And then it catches fire in the new media and leaps into the old media."
Mainstream news organizations generally do not publish stories about private sexual conduct based solely on unnamed sources. And despite "outing" campaigns by some gay activists, news outlets are particularly reluctant to accuse a public figure who says he is heterosexual of engaging in gay sexual acts without definitive proof.
Popkey launched his examination of Craig in part at the urging of a gay blogger and Washington fundraising consultant, Mike Rogers, who made the accusation online and on a radio talk show. Popkey says he was cautious because Rogers "had an ax to grind. He wanted to bring down Larry Craig." Rogers declared on his blog this week that "exposing anti-gay right closet cases is important for our democracy."
Should the 63,000-circulation newspaper have mounted such an extensive effort? "You could question the initial decision to commit those kinds of resources to study this issue," says Jim Weatherby, a professor emeritus at Boise State University. "They didn't find the smoking gun."
As he pursued the story, says Popkey, who interviewed 41 of Craig's fraternity brothers, "these were very unpleasant questions to be asking of people. The investigation went all the way back to Craig's youth." While "it may seem to an outsider invasive to be going back into the guy's college days," Popkey says, Craig was prominent early on as a student body president at the University of Idaho.
A onetime police reporter who speaks in measured tones, Popkey says he interviewed a former student who said Craig made a sexual advance in 1967, and a man who said Craig had "cruised" him at a Boise store in 1994. But these and other accounts could not be corroborated.
Popkey also visited Kevin Naff, editor of the Washington Blade, a gay newspaper, and showed photos of Craig to people using restrooms at Union Station to see if any of them recalled the senator engaging in sexual conduct there.
Craig denied the allegations during an hour-long interview with Popkey in May, saying he is not gay and that "I don't do that kind of thing." The following month, says Popkey, Craig sent the Statesman "a nasty letter telling us to cut it out," but declined to provide some documents requested by the paper, including a waiver that would allow access to his FBI file. Craig was arrested in Minnesota days later.
Though some journalists might feel pride at breaking exclusive information, Popkey says he has mixed feelings about Craig. The columnist recently praised his "gutsy leadership on immigration reform" and took note of Craig's nine grandchildren in describing the lawmaker's decision on whether to seek reelection next year.
"He's a senator who's done a lot for Idaho," Popkey says. "He's delivered a lot of goodies from his spot on the Appropriations Committee and is very popular. . . .
"He is a tough guy. He loves his job. He cares about what he does. He cares about the people he serves. This has been his life."
For two decades, Idaho politics has been Popkey's life as well. Only in the past 48 hours has the rest of the media world discovered him, and he has appeared on programs from "Hardball" to "Nightline."
"Dan writes hard-hitting opinion pieces, and that offends some people," Weatherby says. "But he's probably the most courageous reporter in Idaho. Everyone reads Popkey."