Too Hot To Verify
Richard Blow is the former executive editor of George Magazine. He is author of American Son: A Portrait of John F. Kennedy, Jr., and is writing a book about Harvard University.
Back when I was embroiled in a mini-controversy over writing a book about my old boss, John F. Kennedy Jr., this kind of thing happened a lot: A reporter would call me up, say that an anonymous source who used to work at George magazine had alleged a heinous thing about me, and ask me to comment. I was writing the book because I had a latent homosexual crush on John, because I couldn't get a job, and so on.
Questions like this put a guy in an awkward situation. If you don't respond, your "no comment" can make it look like the accusation is true. If you do respond, you're adding the "he said" to the "she said." I was a little na´ve, so I'd say, no, it's not true. The next day I'd read, "Richard Blow denied that he is writing a book about John Kennedy because he's unemployed and broke." (Thanks a lot, Jeannette Walls.)
Now, this wasn't exactly the end of the world. For one thing, I developed a thick skin, and for another, I'm not particularly important, except maybe to my mother. But I was struck by the shoddy journalism. Credible, serious news organizations such as The New York Observer, MSNBC.com, Salon.com and Content magazine asked me about anonymous, single-sourced allegations, then took my responses as a reason to shoehorn sleazy innuendo into print.
I suggested to the reporters that they ask the accusers for some proof"or better yet, report it out themselves"and if they had none, not to run the story. For some crazy reason, not one reporter took me up on that suggestion.
All of which brings me to John Kerry. Last week, Matt Drudge ran a banner item alleging that news organizations were investigating whether the Massachusetts senator had had an affair with an intern. Instantly you could feel the heavy breathing in the media world, all those producers and assignment editors wondering if there was some way they could get this naughty bit into print, hoping for the other high-heeled shoe to drop.
Because millions of people read his site, Matt Drudge is a powerful guy"though maybe slightly less now than he was about a week ago"and this rumor spread fast. So, even though there wasn't a shred of evidence that the affair had occurred"or even, so far as I can tell, that any news organizations had been looking into it"Kerry was forced to go on Don Imus' radio show and deny it.
Subsequently, so did the young woman thought to be Kerry's paramour. She admitted that she hadn't expected to see an unsubstantiated rumor run in legitimate news organizations. Of course, her and Kerry's denials provided yet another reason to print the rumor. Even The New York Times ran a fairly lengthy and decently-placed story on a wholly unsubstantiated rumor.
Now, you could argue that John Kerry wasn't hurt by this incident, and that may be true, although it could be one reason why he lost momentum in Wisconsin. But it does seem to me that we've crossed a line here. No longer is there even the slightest debate about whether a candidate's sex life is off-limits to the press and public. Instead, the media reports on a sex rumor without even the slightest hint of proof. And by the way, when did you stop beating your wife, Sen. Kerry?
Some years back, a writer pitched me a story at George about an anti-abortion presidential candidate who'd allegedly helped his daughter get an abortion. The reporter couldn't prove the story, but everyone in the media was buzzing about it and he wanted to spin it as "the story that everyone was chasing but couldn't nail down." I declined, suggesting if no one could nail it down, maybe it wasn't true, and the ubiquitousness of a salacious rumor wasn't reason enough to print it.
I still feel that way. I just wish the rest of the press agreed.
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Published: Feb 19 2004