Unstatesmanlike Conduct
Larry Craig didn't cover himself in glory. Neither did the press.

The American Spectator, November 2007

It was Monday, August 27, when the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call broke the news that Idaho's Senator Larry Craig had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disorderly conduct in a June sex-solicitation sting at a Minneapolis airport men's room. It was Tuesday, August 28, when the Idaho Statesman published a 3,800-word investigative story detailing "previous allegations of homosexual conduct."

Those allegations spanned nearly a quarter century. They began in 1982, when Craig, then a freshman House member, issued an odd pre-emptive denial of untoward behavior with congressional pages. (The next year the House censured two other members, in a scandal that was both bisexual and bipartisan.) They continued though October 2006, when, amid the Mark Foley scandal, a gay blogger named Mike Rogers "outed" Craig, claiming, based on information from anonymous sources, that the senator was homosexual.

The Statesman had not set a world speed record for indoor muckraking. Rather, it had reported the story earlier, over a five-month period, during which reporter Dan Popkey had a cringe-inducing conversation with the senator and his wife:

In the May 14 interview, Craig and his wife listened to a four-minute excerpt of the Statesman's interview with the 40-year-old man who first spoke to Rogers. At first, Craig objected to the man's anonymity, but agreed to listen. The man's voice was disguised.

Craig said the man is an activist. "The gay movement, we know it for what it is. It's now aggressive and it's liberal and it's naming people to try to put them in compromising, difficult situations."

Suzanne Craig's eyes reddened and filled with tears as she listened. After her husband's denial, she said, "I'm incensed that you would even consider such a piece of trash as a credible source." . . .

Before moving on to the next question, Craig turned to his wife and said, "Sorry, Hon."

After the story ran, Craig professed innocence and accused the newspaper of having conducted a witch hunt: "In pleading guilty, I overreacted in Minneapolis, because of the stress of the Idaho Statesman's investigation and the rumors it has fueled around Idaho." Statesman editor Bill Manny shot back: "As our story today demonstrated, we followed leads and asked questions. We worked hard and behaved responsibly, not publishing a story until it was ready. We didn't print anything until the senator pleaded guilty. Our story outlined what we've done and it speaks for itself."

Craig's various excuses for the Minneapolis incident--his feet touched those of the cop in the next stall because he urinates with a "wide stance," and he reached under the divider to pick up a piece of toilet paper--were, to say the least, hard to believe. And while police investigations like this may sometimes ensnare innocent men, it seemed far-fetched that, as the left-wing blogger David Kurtz cruelly put it, "he was so fearful of being wrongly outed as a gay man that he wrongly pleaded guilty to charges arising from [allegedly] seeking gay sex in a public restroom."

At the same time, it was difficult to work up much enthusiasm for the Statesman's news judgment. If the story was too insubstantial to merit publication on August 26--or in May, after Popkey obtained the senator's denial--why did it pass muster on August 28?

The decision to publish is easy to understand when viewed through a competitive lens rather than an ethical one. The rumors about Craig's sexuality were widely known to people who follow politics, including journalists. At least one newspaper--the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington, which also circulates in nearby northern Idaho--had aired Rogers's claims (along with Craig's denial) back in 2006. Craig's guilty plea was bound to lead other news organizations to investigate the rumors. What would be the point in acting as gatekeeper for a story that was already out of the gate? Why should the Statesman let itself get scooped?

That is what happened to the Oregonian in late 1992. It had been pursuing a story about Sen. Bob Packwood's sexual harassment of women, including employees and lobbyists, but the Washington Post beat the Portland paper to the punch. Even the Post, though, withheld the story until late November, after Packwood had been re-elected. Three years later, after the Senate Ethics Committee recommended Packwood's expulsion, he resigned.

One difference between 1992 and 2007 is that the Internet then was an obscure subculture and there was no such thing as a blog. In the Packwood case, the press arguably was too slow to report what it knew. As one Oregonian columnist put it, two days after the Post broke the story, "The worst kept secret in Oregon politics is out." The accusations against Craig--which include nothing as obtrusive as Packwood's forcible groping and kissing of women in his office--might never have come out had the mainstream media been acting alone.

Many observers, including this columnist, have celebrated the way the Internet has weakened the press's traditional gatekeeper role. It is especially a boon to conservatives, who have little representation in America's newsrooms. But the Craig affair is a reminder that this is a mixed blessing. Do we really want someone like Mike Rogers acting as gatekeeper?

In January 2006, Rogers posted an open letter to an unidentified senator threatening to expose him as homosexual if he voted in favor of Samuel Alito's confirmation to the Supreme Court. In retrospect, it is obvious that Rogers meant Craig. Rogers's threat was a heads-I-win-tails-you-lose proposition, inasmuch as an anti-Alito vote would have been so out of character politically as to raise questions about Craig's motives. (In the event, Craig voted in Alito's favor.)

The Statesman's report did not mention the Alito threat. It did say that Rogers sought, in the newspaper's words, to "nail a hypocritical Republican foe of gay rights" and that Rogers's campaign against Craig was "prompted by his anger over the GOP election-year push for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage":

Craig voted for the failed measure [actually for "cloture," which would have allowed a vote on the amendment itself] July 14, 2004. He also has opposed allowing gays or lesbians in the military and voted against extending civil rights protections to homosexuals in the workplace.
The hypocrisy charge, however, does not stand up. If homosexual desire is an inborn trait and not a choice, then it is not something for which one can be held accountable. If someone is homosexual and thinks homosexuality is immoral, then remaining in the closet and opposing gay-rights measures is entirely consistent with that belief. If such a man seeks out furtive encounters in rest rooms, that is an act of weakness. But it is also an act that evinces shame about his own homosexuality--which, again, is fully consistent with the belief that homosexuality is wrong.

If Craig is in fact homosexual, his alleged behavior can be construed as tragically self-loathing, or as a sign that he is, as blogger Mickey Kaus put it, "almost heroically non-hypocritical." Yet while privacy is no defense for sordid conduct in a public place, the real hypocrites are those who claim to believe in a right to privacy but use their political opponents' personal vices as a weapon.

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