Broward News

Post's Mark Foley Policy Backfires

Watching the Palm Beach Post political editor Brian E. Crowley slowly evolve -- and slowly begin to level with his readers about former Republican Congressman Mark Foley -- has been fun to watch. Think of the shock of those poor readers who relied solely on Crowley and the Post for their information on Foley at the time the news broke that he was engaging in lewd, homoerotic e-mail exchanges with underage Congressional pages.

Because Crowley and the Post unwisely decided that Foley's sexual identity was off-limits in the newspaper, those readers were left in the dark. They didn't know that Foley was a closeted gay man in a political party that largely abhors, well, what they might call his kind. They didn't know Foley was of a craven enough political animal to come out against gay marriage and adoption by gay couples. And they didn't know that he changed his stances and his rhetoric on gay issues depending on the chances of being outed in the press.

So the recent revelations must have have been like a sucker-punch to the back

of the head. For most of the rest of the people, who had the luxury of non-Post news, it was more like a jab to the chin. Not that they would have expected it, but that it's less surprising coming from a politician who is already living a conflicted secret life full of subterfuge and dishonesty.

Looking at the newspaper's history with the issue is darn near hilarious. In 2003, when Foley dropped out of a U.S. Senate race after he floundered amid news reports that he was gay (beginning with this New Times story) . The Post, unlike most every newspaper in the state, never mentioned the issue. Instead Crowley played up the cover story: That Foley was quitting to take care of his father, who had cancer (treatable prostate cancer that had been diagnosed a month before).

Crowley's coverage was absurd; he wrote three three stories on the issue, culminating in a melodramatic article on Sept. 21, 2003 headlined: "Needed at home: A politician's toughest decision." The article, which is more like an homage to Foley and his family than a news report, has some interesting details in it. The way Foley's sister, Donna Foley Winterson, played mother hen to the Congressman and how she didn't want him on the road campaigning "by himself." Foley, weirdly, says his sister is like his "wife." There's also references to the family's close relationship to a Catholic priest at Cardinal Newman High School where his dad coached football, a marijuana arrest at 17, and his wish to quit high school and go to New York to help manage an apartment building for a male friend.

Not only does Crowley ignore what every other newspaper has written about the gay issue, but he plays around it in a very weird way:

In some ways, you can't blame the skeptics. After one term as a state House representative and five terms in the U.S. House, Mark Foley's ambition burns so intensely that it is not unreasonable to wonder. Surely there must be scandal. Or maybe the White House pushed him out. Perhaps his fellow Republican, Gov. Jeb Bush, wanted someone else to represent the state and muscled Foley out of the way.

"I just don't believe it," a lobbyist said of Foley's tearful public statement that he was quitting the Senate race to spend more time with his parents. "There has to be something else."

As it turns out, that something else is his father Ed, an 82-year-old Irish-American from Massachusetts, and Frances, the 77-year-old Polish-American bride Ed met in Catholic school. They will be married 59 years in November.

They are the kind of parents who instilled in their five children - three girls and two boys - that family comes first. Parents who showed up for every event and always cheered them on no matter what. Parents who didn't think it was unusual to do those things. They thought it was unusual not to do them.

"If I were going to federal prison, they would stand outside the gate and say, 'Do good, get a job in the library,' " Mark says fondly.

Well, with the revelations about the e-mails (some of which were sent prior to that charade of a Post news article being published), that quote might be all too prescient. Might be time to get boned up on the Dewey Decimal System, Mark.

Things were quiet until Thursday and Friday, when ABC started breaking the e-mail stories. In the first Internet versions of the Post story there was no mention of the events of 2003 at all. In yesterday's print edition, the Post story, by-lined by Crowley and Larry Lipman, parsed the issue, writing that "allegations" had been levied "in the past" about his sexual orientation and that he "confronted" the issue by saying it was "nobody's business."

Then later in the article it stated unequivocally, once again, that Foley quit the 2003 Senate race because of his father's illness. And Crowley still showed some pride in his role in the story: "An uncontrollably sobbing Foley broke the news to a Post reporter," he wrote.

Then comes today. Obviously, there's been some soul-searching at the Post and it is, begrudgingly, changing its tune. For the first time, Crowley connected the drop-out from the Senate race to the "rumors" and admitted in print that the policy was in place. To wit:

The rumors continued to surface occasionally, and in 2003, when he was the front-runner in a primary race for the Senate seat being vacated by Bob Graham, Foley gave a news conference to condemn rumors that he was gay but refused to say whether he was. A few months later, he dropped out of the race, saying he needed to spend more time with his father, who had prostate cancer.

The Palm Beach Post did not report the rumors. The Post's policy is not to report about a politician's sexual orientation unless it is relevant to a news story.

More accurately, the Post did not report the truth, but I suppose it makes the institution feel better to keep referring to it as rumors. Actually, I agree with the policy. The problem is the Post obviously couldn't discern news relevance. A closeted politician running for national office as a member of a political party that is anti-gay would seem to me to be relevent. That same candidates coming out against gay marriage and adoption would also seem relevent. And a much-publicized Foley press conference in which he denounced questions about his sexual orientation as "repulsive" would be deemed relevant by just about anyone with common sense and was by the Florida press at large.

But this isn't just about Foley. It's about the way the Post and other local newspapers cover local members of Congress. They use them as sources rather than watchdog their voting records, quoting their spin on national issues while ignoring the substance (or lack thereof) of their tenure in office. They are way too deferential to these spinning talking heads who so often profoundly disappoint the people. And they are afraid of rocking the boat (hell, the St. Pete Times had at least part of the e-mail scandal and chickened out on it).

Hopefully Crowley, the Post, and other Washington bureau reporters learned a lesson about that from the sad ending of Mark Foley's political career.

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman