The News Tip: Saying It's Over Doesn't Make It So
Two weeks ago, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain found himself fending off reports of sexual harassment published in the Washington political newspaper Politico.
"As far as we're concerned ... enough said about the issue. There's nothing else there to dig up," he said.
That was, predictably, not the end of the story. It continues on, unsettled, which says something about the age-old idea of "controlling the story."
NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik, has this news tip: Just because the subject of a story says it's over doesn't mean that's true.
He tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Audie Cornish the Murdoch family also tried to put a stop to a story that just wouldn't end. Four years ago, Folkenflik says, they tried to limit the problem to the first two arrests. Since then, many more people have become involved in the investigation.
Containing a story, Folkenflik says, "depends on what kind of information you bring forward, and it also depends on the nature of the story itself."
When questions were raised about whether President Obama was born in the United States, a requirement for the presidency, the story didn't end when Hawaiian officials said he was born there. The president had to hand the press his long-form birth certificate.
"He finally gave the most incontrovertible, most authoritative source he could, and the story evaporated at that point," Folkenflik says.
In the current media climate, it's harder to reign in a story once it has been set loose, he says.
"I think the way in which you deal with it is with speed and with fullness," Folkenflik says. "But, you know, until you do that in a credible way, you're not going to be able to get to the end of the story."
Which other public figures have effectively ended a story by revealing evidence up front? Share your thoughts on our Facebook page.
AUDIE CORNISH, host: Two weeks ago, that political news site Politico first reported on sexual harassment allegations against Herman Cain, stemming from his time as head of National Restaurant Association. And in the first days of the story, Cain hit back against the allegations.
HERMAN CAIN: As far as we're concerned, you know, enough said. Enough said about the issue. There's nothing else there to dig up.
CORNISH: That was, predictably not the end of the story. Three days later, another report of inappropriate behavior surfaced. The following week, yet another accusation and another attempt to quash the story.
CAIN: It wasn't anything behind closed doors. I gestured because of her height. Comparing it to my wife's height. End of story.
CORNISH: Heading into the debate this weekend, Cain was refusing questions other than to say he wants to get back on message. But is that the end of the story?
Joining us in-studio to talk more about it is NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik.
So, David, what say you? What's the News Tip for today?
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think the News Tip here is that just because the subject of a story says its over, doesn't mean that's true.
CORNISH: But they say end of the story all the time. And if you cover politics, not only do they say end of the story, they say this isn't a story. So what's the big deal?
FOLKENFLIK: All right. So maybe that means this tip isn't being absorbed ahead of time by the politicians who could take it to heart. After all, I don't think Herman Cain was served well by letting this dribble out for 12, 14 days before kind of coming to some sort of resolution. It's helpful to think about this as a reader, as a listener, as a viewer to say, OK, just because somebody says that's it, I draw on it, it's done, doesn't make that the case. Last week, I was in England covering the Murdock family trying to deal with the fallout of that huge phone hacking and police bribery scandal there. They had tried to draw a line on it and said, look, this was limited. Four years ago, the arrest of one reporter who focused on the royal family and one private investigator he hired wasn't a big deal. What we now know is that police are looking into the fact there were nearly 6,000 people targeted for this kind of hacking, and 22 people have been arrested. They closed down a paper, they lost editors, they lost executives, and how they deal with it affects their credibility.
Similarly, how Herman Cain deals with this story affects how we look at him. If you think about the Cain instance, Politico came forward with this story about a couple of women who raised questions of sexual harassment and been paid perhaps to leave the association he used to lead. And we had no sense of what those allegations were. We had no sense really of how he had dealt with them. And so if you're a voter thinking about the Republican primaries, you didn't have enough information to go on, to decide, hey, how should I judge this candidate given the information I have?
CORNISH: But David, how do you contain a story once the press is on your scent?
FOLKENFLIK: I think part of it depends on what kind of information you bring forward, and it also depends on the nature of the story itself. If you think about the question that bedeviled President Obama, the question of his birth, the question of was he really born somewhere other than the U.S., which would have made him ineligible to be elected president. State officials in Hawaii said he was born there - Republican state officials I might add. All of the official records you would need to look to for any kind of qualification, they all indicated the same thing; contemporary news reports too. And yet, the story didn't go away. As you may recall, a very upset President Obama finally strolled into a briefing room and told reporters, here, look, folks, you guys aren't going to give up this thing, even though your own news organizations have looked at this. I'll give you my long-form birth certificate and this story's done, and the story evaporated at that point.
CORNISH: Well, politicians wouldn't do this unless they thought at some point it had been successful. So, was there ever a time when politicians could stonewall effectively, look at reporters and say this isn't a story and reporters actually just walked away from it?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think it depends on the subject matter. If you think about matters of sexual indiscretions or misconduct, do you look at somebody like Jack Kennedy, a senator, then president. You know, Ben Bradley, the paragon of editing at the Washington Post had known about the fact that he was a skirt chaser, as he would have thought about many, many decades ago. But although a young editor at Newsweek and then at the Washington Post, he never felt that that was something he had to go after. If you look at something like Watergate, President Nixon's administration tried to stonewall very much. The Washington Post had reported on that in 1972, and yet Americans returned President Nixon by a very large margin to office. They stonewalled that one long enough to get into a second term. What they weren't able to do was prevent that from erupting in full force and in public view.
CORNISH: So, it sounds like it depends on what kind of scandal it is. And it sounds like, in this day and age, it's impossible to end the story.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, there aren't as many gatekeepers. There are so many more different news organizations and the pace of news is so much faster that the drive for more material, for more answers is relentless. I think the way in which you have to deal with it is with speed and with fullness. But, you know, until you do that in a credible way you're not going to be able to get to the end of the story.
CORNISH: So, that's this week's news tip. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik. Thank you so much.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
CORNISH: If you want to drop us a news tip, visit NPR.org/TheNewsTip - all one word. You can also follow us on Twitter @DavidFolkenflik and @NPRAudie.
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CORNISH: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.