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Newspaper Outlets Withheld Reporting on Foley E-mails

October 3, 2006 at 6:30 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: Even as congressional leaders are drawing heat in the Foley case, many in the world of journalism are also looking at the story behind the story.

It was ABC that broke the news last week, but it’s become clear in recent days that some news organizations had information about Mr. Foley’s e-mails months ago but decided not to publish stories.

One such newspaper is the Miami Herald. Its executive editor, Tom Fiedler, joins us now.

Mr. Fiedler, you were quoted in your own newspaper as saying that the Herald had seen some of Mr. Foley’s e-mails, but that, quote, “the content of the messages was too ambiguous to lead to a news story.” Explain that to us.

TOM FIEDLER, Executive Editor, Miami Herald: Actually, it was a single exchange, and this is the one that also was posted just last week on ABCnews.com by Brian Ross that ultimately triggered, I think, the more outrageous e-mails, those that were described as the instant messages.

We received a copy of this first exchange. It was between Mr. Foley and the former page for Congressman Alexander, which was described earlier as being the e-mail in which Mr. Foley asked a few questions, again, I think that could be taken as perhaps disquieting, but nothing sexually provocative.

The congressman asked how he had fared during the recent hurricanes that had gone through there, asked him when his birthday was, what he wanted for his birthday, and asked him to send a “pic.” I think that was the word he used. And the page ultimately described this later as — he felt it was a sick kind of an exchange.

But, again, in the context in which we received it and in which we were looking at it, it seemed although perhaps disquieting — or to use Speaker Hastert’s phrase, it appeared overly friendly — it certainly wasn’t so overtly sexual in nature that I think you would immediately connect it to pedophilia.

Investigating the story

JEFFREY BROWN: How much, though, did you then pursue the story? The St. Petersburg Times, who also got this e-mail apparently, and they have said that they went to try to talk to other pages. Did you? Did you confront Mr. Foley about it?

TOM FIEDLER: Yes, we didn't go as far as attempting to reach out to other pages. I think it's fairly well-known now that the parents of the page in question were quite adamant in resisting any further public knowledge of this. They felt that, once the matter had been brought to the attention of the page board and that a caution had been supposedly transmitted from the page board to Representative Foley, and had a commitment, supposedly, received from Congressman Foley that he wouldn't do such a thing again, the parents felt that they didn't want to pursue it. They certainly didn't want their son to be further involved.

All of this, I think, left us -- and, of course, hindsight is 20/20 -- but left us feeling that, at best, what we had was an ambiguous exchange, one that Congressman Foley could and did dismiss as being a misinterpretation of an innocent set of questions that he said were the kinds of things he did frequently.

He pointed out that the page in question had initiated the contact in asking for a reference. I believe it was for college. And, again, in the absence of something further, something that would corroborate concerns -- and I'm not proud to say this -- but we felt that the story was of such a potentially explosive nature of the kind that would have created a stain had Congressman Foley been innocent that we thought it best not to pursue it unless something further developed.

'Benefit of the doubt'

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, it is, of course, hindsight, but the question is whether you were aggressive enough. I mean, of course, the critique now would be that, one, you let a major story slip your hands; and, two, just as the discussion about what was going on in Congress. If somebody had acted earlier, then it might have had some impact.

How do you feel about that now? Were you aggressive enough?

TOM FIEDLER: And that's a serious question that I think we have to ask ourselves internally. The answer is probably no.

I think the concern ought to be whether, had we acted more aggressively, had we turned up something sooner, could we or would we have prevented any further such e-mail conversations that may have gone on in the intervening several months? And, of course, I have no way of knowing that.

But I think what it comes down to is, in dealing with, again, what we thought was an ambiguous situation, we probably erred on the side of giving the benefit of the doubt to Congressman Foley, perhaps because our relationship with Congressman Foley, going back many years, had always been a very open one, probably, in fact, a fairly positive one.

And so, if we were trying to resolve this in his favor or against him, we may have been too quick...

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I'm sorry. I think we just lost -- we just lost Miami.