Lessons from the Mark Foley affair

October 16, 2006

Mark Foley, the disgraced former South Florida congressman, is new to the national media, but he has been a perplexing figure for local media for over a decade. With his career apparently over, the Foley storyline has mutated into an election-eve argument over how congressional leaders responded to warnings he was lusting after teenage pages. But the media’s performance is being re-examined too, and I worry that the lessons being drawn are the wrong ones.

Foley was already old news in June 2003 when I took part in a panel in Fort Lauderdale sponsored by the gay and lesbian journalists group on the ethics of outing closeted officials. Foley was the featured topic.

He had been outed in 1994 by the Advocate, a local gay newspaper angered by his support for the Defense of Marriage Act, which let states refuse to recognize same-sex marriages performed legally elsewhere. In ’03, when this panel convened, he had dramatically modified his gay rights positions and was running for the Senate, and some of the region’s bolder news organizations ¾ among them New Times and the Daily Business Review ¾ had attributed his hypocritical zigzags to his being gay.

But the metro dailies and TV stations had not. “I’m not going to be dragged into the gutter by these rumor mongers,” was as much as their audiences learned.

Hypocrisy seemed to me then an insufficient reason to expose the intimate realities of a public official’s private life. It still does. But in fact, the situation was well beyond mere hypocrisy, as we’ll see.

The media’s reluctance to touch Foley’s homosexuality is now being offered up to explain the failure of news organizations including the St. Petersburg Times, Miami Herald and Harper’s magazine to report tips they received over the past year about his amorous pursuits.

On the online Huffington Post, Eric Boehlert writes: “Had the Herald not dismissed his homosexuality as irrelevant, it would have been more likely to read the alleged e-mail exchange … as the sexual overture it apparently was.” Bob Norman of Broward/Palm Beach New Times, who outed Foley in ’03, argues,  “It made the story that much more difficult to tell.”

That argument seems weak. It suggests that evidence of sexual predation and abuse of office would have been more actionable editorially if Foley had already been publicly identified as gay. But why? Why wouldn’t journalists have been more reluctant to move on the story if Foley had been openly gay? Besides, if Foley was propositioning teenage boys, what difference would it make if journalists had assumed he was happily married, with 2.2 children and a matching golden retriever?

My own sense is that the newsroom failure to chase down the pages tip stands on its own as an editorial mistake, perhaps born of a disinclination to pursue a sordid, longshot story about an out-of-town legislator. The blown opportunity is disheartening to those of us who fret over journalism’s loss of nerve, but it has no clear relation to the earlier diffidence shown to Foley’s homosexuality.

But what about that diffidence ¾ should Foley have been outed?

If so, the argument has to rest on more than a visceral sense that nobody can be both gay and a conservative Republican. Why not? We all decide on our political allegiances based on a near fit, not a perfect fit. A gay man may well decide the GOP, even with its recurring homophobia, still is more broadly to his liking than the alternative.

But the Foley problem was different, as I’ve been slow to recognize. Here, the issue wasn’t that his public performance wasn’t consistent with his private life. It’s that for years, his public performance made no sense unless you knew about what was happening behind the scenes. After his infuriating 1994 vote he dramatically softened his position on gay rights to deter further efforts to out him. In turn, he sought out off-the-wall issues ¾ clamoring, for instance, for a state crackdown on a central Florida nudist colony ¾ to appease his family values base. It’s almost certain he pulled the plug on his Senate run because his gayness would come up.

As Boehlert correctly writes, “Foley’s sexuality had become the central issue in his career.” And yet it was kept not secret, but in the shadows, known to those in the know, hidden from the main body of his constituents.

This wasn’t a matter of deferring to a legitimate area of privacy. Foley’s public actions were unintelligible unless you knew this backstory. And in failing to tell it, the media failed the public, and endorsed a principle of timidity that’s sure to fail the public in the future as well.

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