Press Pack Chases Wrong Dog Up Wrong Tree

A week ago, Republican Jack Ryan was forced to drop out of the Senate race in Illinois after unseemly and politically damaging details emerged from his divorce records, which were unsealed following a lawsuit filed by Chicago media outlets. Immediately, calls went out for John Kerry’s divorce records to be unsealed as well. The Drudge Report claimed that there was a “frenzy” for the records; Reuters and other wire services then ran a story about Kerry’s rejection of the idea; and a number of other outlets followed suit.

Yesterday — four days after Drudge’s report and almost a week after one paper said it was “very interested in seeing what is hidden inside presidential candidate John Kerry’s divorce records” — we all found out that — oops! — for all intents and purposes, Kerry’s divorce records are already unsealed. “The only portion of the records that are sealed involve the couple’s financial information … which [is] impounded in all divorce cases,” reported the Associated Press. A number of outlets sheepishly noted the news today. (Although something called WorldNetDaily, which this morning called the records “a ticking time bomb,” apparently didn’t get the memo.)

This morning the AP tried to shift attention from the egg on the press’ face to Kerry himself — since he told reporters, when questioned, that he didn’t want the records unsealed. Here is AP writer Jennifer Peter’s lede: “When Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry dismissed calls that he make his divorce records public, he apparently didn’t know many of them already are.”

The AP’s attempt to try to pin its own lack of enterprise on Kerry belongs in the Lame Hall of Fame. Best we can tell, it took all of one phone call for Peter to discover that Kerry’s records were already available. Why no reporter made that call for nearly a week — while running stories about the so-called controversy — is the only true question of import here. Peter claims the dubious honor of breaking the story that there was no story. But had any number of reporters done their homework in the first place, she wouldn’t have had to.

Brian Montopoli

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.