Journalism Ethicists Hit Overcoverage of Gore Story

Some journalism ethicists are taking issue with coverage of the allegations of sexual misconduct against former vice president Al Gore, claiming the facts do not indicate any concrete evidence of a crime.

The claim, first reported by the National Enquirer this week, was made by a massage therapist who contends Gore attempted sexual misconduct in 2006 in a Portland, Ore., hotel. But her complaint to police did not result in any arrest or further prosecution of Gore.

According to The Washington Post, “The executive editor of the National Enquirer says the Oregon masseuse who made a sexual allegation against Al Gore asked the tabloid for $1 million but that the Enquirer did not pay her or anyone else in reporting the story. Barry Levine said in an interview Thursday that the woman offered to sell her account through her lawyer but that 'no money exchanged hands' and the paper conducted only a brief interview with her.”

One Portland newspaper, the Portland Tribune, reported Wednesday that the woman had indeed filed a complaint, but the paper indicated police did not find any evidence to pursue it. The paper also went further to reveal it had looked into the claim in 2007 and 2008 and found no evidence to report on it.

“In 2007 and 2008, after locating the massage therapist and conducting extensive interviews and doing other reporting on this case, the Tribune chose not to publish the story. The Tribune held back, in part, because the woman was reluctant to be named in the story,” the Tribune reported.

In addition, according to "'She was only willing to go forward if she could have a certain amount of control,'" [Tribune Executive Editor] Garber said. Some of information she didn't want in the story, Garber felt, couldn't be left out because it was essential to 'a full and fair telling.' ... 'In the end, we chose not to publish the story," Garber said. 'Our journalistic drive was to do something, but when you looked at all the evidence it was not responsible to move forward.'"

In fact the Tribune reports it had made a major investment in the story: “Using a combination of sources and shoe leather, the Tribune spent a year tracking down the alleged victim, reaching out to associates of hers and of Gore, and learning about their habits and their accounts of the evening in question. The paper went so far as to take out ads on Craigslist searching for more potential victims in other cities that Gore had visited. But in the end, the Tribune could not put together a story that met its standards of journalistic responsibility.”

Portland's other major newspaper, The Oregonian, however, has reported heavily on the story, playing it up on Page One and even offering an interview with the accuser today, despite the fact it has uncovered no more proof that anything occurred. It even indicated, as have others, that the accuser sought payment from the Enquirer at one point for the story.

Fred Brown, vice chair of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee, criticized the heavy coverage.

“It's a story that the mainstream media probably would not have paid any attention to,” he said, noting that it started with the Enquirer. “The whole thing strikes me as being very difficult to prove. It is one of those things that makes me kind of squeamish about how the media behave. It is more gossip than anything that is relevant. It doesn't survive the media test of relevance and usefulness.”

Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy and a former media writer for The New York Times, also denounced the coverage. “The woman came in well after the fact, reported it and nothing came of it,” he said. “If I were the editor, I would not have reported it either.”

Bob Steele, a media instructor for the Poynter Institute, said it was not surprising that after the Enquirer story broke media outlets would report that police looked into the case. But he said the follow-up coverage and speculation can go too far.

“This is where tone and proportion come into play,” Steele said. “You have a story that has unclear and emerging details and a 'she said-he said' element. A danger exists in the speculative, overly interpretive area of pundits and uninformed prognosticators.”

Steele slammed the Enquirer for failing to seek comment from Gore before reporting the initial story: “That, to me, is clearly an ethical failure on the part of the Enquirer. Not to give the accused a reasonable opportunity for response is the height of unfairness.”

He also called the Tribune approach, “A good step in transparency.”