Heard It Through the Grapevine
Nearly every other week, Walker Lundy puts pen to paper and comes up with a Sunday column to run in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. More often than not, the topic involves the tough choices he, Walker Lundy, must make every day as editor of a metropolitan daily newspaper. "It was a journalistic dilemma without precedent," began Lundy's column a few weeks ago. "Sometime Friday afternoon, the Starr report--all 110,000 words, including quite a few that probably don't get used very often around your breakfast table--was going to be released, and the editors at every U.S. newspaper had to figure out what to do with it." And back in July, as scandals raged about the Cincinnati Enquirer, the Boston Globe, CNN, and The New Republic, he asked, "Do reporters sometimes get things wrong and--even worse--make up things?"
A week ago Sunday, though, Lundy's topic was a little closer to home, and a little more mysterious. "When does an intensely personal rumor about a public figure become newsworthy?" he wrote, after his trademark salutation "Good morning." The column went on to assert, then dither on about rumors involving a political candidate. "Even if reporters can't prove the rumors are true, do the voters have a 'right to know' the rumors are circulating?" he mused. And, "How do you cool your own competitive instincts when you hear other media outlets in town are chasing the same rumors?"
Assuring his readers that he was indeed referring to a real rumor and not a hypothetical one, Lundy noted that the candidate in question had "staunchly denied" the allegations, and vowed that his paper would neither air the rumors nor name the candidate. "My greatest fear at this point is not that a competitor will beat us on the story," he wrote. "It's that a competitor will find a way to report the rumors with insufficient substantiation." That, he explained, would give rise to yet another ethical dilemma: "Do we publish a version of a story we previously had decided was not worth publishing?" On that subject he was inconclusive, bashing the online magazine Salon for reporting the tawdry tale of Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde's extramarital affair in the '60s but admitting that the Pioneer Press, along with the rest of the nation's dailies, had gone public with the story after Salon broke it. "Our excesses sometimes prove the rule," he said in conclusion, "but just as often at the Pioneer Press, we try to act with care to ensure that when you get the facts, they are just that: facts. Not rumors."
Lundy's long-winded soul search has raised eyebrows in local newsrooms. Though they can't be 100 percent certain, reporters and editors all over town have virtually no doubt about the "rumor" to which he refers; though none (understandably) will speak of it publicly, all agree that it's the same morsel of prurient hearsay that has been fed to newsrooms across the state--City Pages included--for more than a year. What's got them shaking their heads is the Pioneer Press's decision to air, even in this veiled fashion, scuttlebutt that's completely unsubstantiated. Some see it as simply an embarrassing bit of public hand-wringing. But others say it smacks of a cheap hustle: In the guise of not publicizing the rumor, Lundy does precisely the opposite, and in breaking the silence lets local politicians, power brokers, and pundits know that no matter what happens, his paper was on the case. Rather than chasing after salacious gossip, PiPress readers are reminded, their paper was staking out the ethical high ground.
"What Lundy wrote puzzles me," says political reporter Pat Kessler of WCCO-TV (Channel 4). "There's rumors about every single candidate in almost every race. Usually they're coming from people who have a motive, and sometimes it's a malicious motive. And most of the time it's wrong.
"We get rumors about construction bid rigging, the personal lives of famous people, about police brutality, about housing scams," Kessler continues. "Much of it's not true. But we look at it. Now, do we go on the air and say, 'Good evening everyone, there are rumors circulating about this, we don't know if they're true, but we want you to know about the rumors'? No. I think it would be irresponsible if we did that."
NewsNight Minnesota co-host Ken Stone says the column was a topic of conversation at KTCA-TV (Channels 2 and 17) the day after it ran. "We talked about it in our Monday-morning meeting," Stone recalls. "The first reaction was, 'Isn't this going to fuel the rumors even more and make the slope even slipperier?'" It isn't a bad idea to open a forum for such matters, Stone believes, especially given the public's sense that the media is always protecting powerful interests. But why now, so close to election day? "Maybe it's the timing of it," says Stone. "Instead of saying, 'a candidate in this campaign,' wait until the polls close and make one up."
Lundy says one reason for choosing that topic for his column was that his reporters had been talking about the rumor. "This one seems to have had a longer shelf life than most," he observes. But mostly, he says, he wrote it because he thought the issue was compelling. "I thought the readers might be interested in what goes on in considering stories that don't see the light of day. Some readers seem to have the impression that we print everything we hear, which, of course, isn't the case."
He says he didn't think about the timing. "I encourage people not to read anything into the column," he says. "I wasn't trying to make more of it than it was--not an alibi, not a warning, not a message."
Still, even Lundy's own reporters find it hard to believe that their boss had no ulterior motives when penning the piece. At the Capitol, PiPress beat writers have been heard to joke with their colleagues about the "ass-covering" tenor of the column. And there's been plenty of discussion about the matter around the paper's own newsroom. "If we get beat, not only can we say we knew about the rumors, but we can say we took a higher moral ground," observes a PiPress reporter who asked not to be named. "I also read it almost as a warning to everyone else working on the story. It's almost like flashing your nuclear weapon. If you flash yours, maybe he'll think twice about flashing his."
Though that same PiPress reporter says the rumor in question is still being pursued, Lundy won't comment about that; he says he won't discuss anything about what his staff is or isn't pursuing. Same goes for Star Tribune managing editor Pam Fine, who's quick to condemn hearsay and politically motivated buzz. One Strib staffer, however, says at least two reporters have been assigned to track down the gossip.
Like news director Scott Libin (KSTP-TV Channel 5), who says his reporters treat all rumors equally, both newspaper editors say they'd apply similar litmus tests should rumors such as the one in question prove to be true.
Lundy: "I wouldn't limit it to this in every circumstance, but generally there are two areas: Does what you're hearing have something to do with job performance, or does it involve some issue that the candidate is using in his or her campaign?"
Fine: "I think the Lewinsky/Clinton matter has raised this issue for us. I think when you hear rumors about people's past or private lives you want to determine first if you think they're relevant. And if you think they are, then you pursue them as you would other information. If it's relevant and speaks to a candidate's ability to govern or their public policy views, then you might publish it."
Across the Strib's newsroom, columnist C.J. is a bit more to the point. "All the news organizations that I talk to in the Twin Cities have someone who is sniffing around this. If this story breaks," she predicts, "there will be a race to be second."
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