In October 2006, blogger Mike Rogers wrote that he’d spoken to some men who claimed they’d had sex with Larry Craig, a Republican Senator from Idaho. It wasn’t long before several papers in the legislator’s home region had written about the story. Nearly all did once the Senator issued a statement denying the claims.
But not the Idaho Statesman, the state’s largest. The paper had been tipped off a day or two before the item broke, and tried to get Rogers to share or name his sources. He refused. So they ignored the story, even after their competitors jumped on board. “It was third-party, anonymous sourcing, and we just weren’t comfortable with it,” says Bill Manny, the paper’s managing editor.
But the Statesman decided to dig deeper, and according to Manny, reporter Dan Popkey spent most of his time from October 2006 to May 2007 looking into Craig’s sexuality. Why? Editor Vicky Gowler, who was not available for comment, told Poynter Online in November 2006 that “Many of [Craig’s] supporters would not vote for him if they knew he was homosexual I’m willing to spend some resources to find out if it’s true.”
Popkey spoke to over 300 sources—and found a lot of dead ends. He interviewed forty-one of the senator’s old fraternity brothers, but only three said they had even heard jokes about Craig being gay. But there were some suggestive details—a woman he dated in college said they had so little physical contact that she “might as well have been his briefcase,” and two men described passes that did not lead to sex.
But this time, when the paper asked Rogers for help, he put Popkey in touch with one of the men, who agreed to be interviewed and recorded on the condition that he not be identified. He said that he’d met the senator for sex in the bathroom of Washington’s Union Station, probably in 2004.
Later, in an hour-long interview, Popkey confronted the Senator and his wife with what he’d dug up. He even played them a portion of his strongest interview. The senator denied or attempted to explain away all of the charges.
After the interview, the Statesman’s editors asked Popkey to write the story. But “ultimately, it was he said, he said,” says Manny. “We went through what we had and we basically had the word of a powerful, respected senator, and one guy in Washington who had a compelling story, but had no evidence.”
It’s worth asking sort of evidence could the journalists expect of what the source described as a one-time, and anonymous, encounter?
Not surprisingly, there wasn’t any. So the Statesman sat on the story, and the rest of Popkey’s reporting.
But just a few weeks later, on June 11, an undercover police officer at the Minneapolis airport arrested Craig after witnessing what he described as a “signal used by persons wishing to engage in lewd conduct.” According to arrest records, Craig denied that had been his intention, but pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in a Minnesota Court on August 8.