The unraveling of Pastor Ted Haggard, replete with allegations of gay sex and meth use, may have contributed to last week’s Democratic sweep in Congress. Karl Rove recently admitted as much. “The profile of corruption in the exit polls was bigger than I’d expected,” said Rove. “Abramoff, lobbying, Foley and Haggard added to the general distaste that people have for all things Washington, and it just reached critical mass.”
But the tale of how this latest clerical fall from grace nearly failed to make headlines before the vote is a cautionary one for every journalist who has ever wondered when she has enough to go with a story. Paula Woodward, an investigative reporter at KUSA-TV, the NBC affiliate in Denver, lost her chance to break one of the biggest stories to come out of Colorado since the murder of Jon Benet Ramsey — in part because of the Jon Benet story.
When Woodward was first contacted by Mike Jones, the Denver callboy who ultimately outed Haggard, via e-mail on August 15, she knew that a major national story lay in her inbox. “I am a 49 yo gay man,” Jones’ e-mail began. “I have lived in Denver all my life. I was a gay escort for many years. I have been with pro athletics, politicians, movie stars, and lots of clergy.”
Woodward was excited, but cautious. “I needed more people involved — more brain power so that we treated it with caution and care…The key was to be able to approach Haggard.”
The next day Jones met with Woodward and news director Patti Dennis. Jones brought a Ziploc bag containing voice mail tapes, money and envelopes which he clamed were sent by Haggard. “The voicemails were quite convincing,” says Dennis, “but I don’t think they could stand alone as evidence of impropriety. And the visits at his apartment were not documented. At that point I was nervous … pastors make home visits all the time. Who’s to say what those visits were about?”
Jones’ evidence would not stand up to the double independent sourcing policy KUSA has enforced since the Jon Benet Ramsey story broke in December 1996. The idea was to counter some of the sloppiness that often accompanies a media feeding frenzy. According to Dennis, as the Jon Benet story played out, “Media were using media as sources and I think two days into it we had a staff-wide meeting about double sourcing, independent sourcing and that the media are not a source as a policy.”
KUSA was unwilling to air the story with just the evidence presented, and for the next ten weeks Woodward and Dennis tried to get what they needed while a national blockbuster sat restlessly in their laps.
The station referred Jones to an attorney for his own protection because, Woodward says, “he was allegedly involved in illegal acts.” It was agreed that he and his lawyer would decide on a burden of proof. When Jones returned with the proposition that the station could capture Haggard’s next visit with hidden cameras, Woodward replied, “If you get that we’ll approve the story.”
KUSA put a camera team essentially on call, ready to descend on Jones’ apartment at a moment’s notice. The interior of the apartment would be off limits. Ted Haggard was only to be taped while entering and leaving Jones’ building.
This plan remained in place through September and October as Woodward says she worked to nail down various aspects of the story. All they needed to approach Haggard was the video, but he never appeared.