How to Cover a Non-Story

The Globe knew about that Scott Brown lawsuit—and passed

On Thursday afternoon, Gawker reported that Scott Brown—the Republican whose victory in a special election in Massachusetts has cost Democrats their Senate super-majority and complicated their legislative agenda—was named as a defendant in a 2000 defamation suit by a female campaign worker, who alleged in court papers that he had harassed her during his 1998 campaign for state office.

Though the suit was reported on by local media at the time it was filed, Gawker notes that it never came up during Brown’s victorious campaign against Martha Coakley. The gist of the post is that this was a terrible political error by Coakley and the Democrats—but there’s some media criticism in there too. Writer Hamilton Nolan asks: “But why did Democrats and members of the national press fail to even bring up the fact that Scott Brown had once been accused of sexual harassment and defamation in the myriad stories about him prior to Massachusetts’ special election in January?”

Over at Salon, Alex Koppelman has an item that provides a partial answer: as indicated by the text of the Gawker post itself and the links embedded in it, the accusations here are “tissue-paper thin.” Two days after the suit was filed, the lawyer for the accuser moved to withdraw from the case, saying that to the best of his knowledge the allegations were not supported. The suit was subsequently dismissed with prejudice, meaning it could not be refiled.

The accuser acknowledged at the time that she had sent Brown notes that were “provocative,” which is consistent with his story that she, not he, was responsible for inappropriate communication. Years later, she was the target of an ethics complaint for allegedly making false accusations against a police officer. Given the weakness of the case against Brown, Koppelman writes, even setting scruples aside there was never a time for Coakley to use it. Early on, when she was the favorite, it would have seemed unnecessary. And later, when she was facing defeat, it would have seemed desperate.

So much for the politicians. How about the press? As it turns out, at least one major media outlet did know about the case, and decided not to include it in its coverage.

Scott Helman, political editor for The Boston Globe—which, for the purposes of a story like this, can fairly be considered “national press”—said today that his paper has been aware of the suit for months. Globe staffers came across the case in the course of doing routine background reporting on the candidates during the primary campaign in late 2009, he said.

The Globe “sniffed around this thing pretty good for awhile,” said Helman, including repeated unsuccessful efforts to contact the plaintiff via phone and e-mail. And among the group of editors and reporters covering the campaign, there were discussions about how to handle the story. But ultimately, based on the details of the case and the rest of the paper’s reporting, “we determined that it just didn’t meet our standards for publishing,” he said. Without more reason to believe there was a credible basis for the suit, it would have been unfair to Brown to write about it, he said.

Based on what we know, the Globe clearly made the right call. And knowing what we know about the paper’s decision, it’s even harder to see how Coakley’s campaign could have made the suit an issue if it had tried to. (Helman said he does not remember discussing the case with Coakley’s campaign, so he can’t say whether or not they knew about it.) As much as the balance of power has shifted and the media landscape has fragmented, politicians still need the press to amplify and validate their messages.

Yes, it’s possible that, as Gawker suggests, even without the mainstream media on board Rahm Emanuel could have “[fed] this to liberal media outlets in an effort to discredit Brown,” much as Fox News is often ready to make talking points out of thin anti-Democratic storylines. But we should be glad that didn’t happen here—and the next time some pumped-up “scandal” makes news for far longer than it should, this episode will stand as an example of how to get it right.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.