A special Media Matters for America report: debunking the Foley myth machine

The scandal surrounding the sexually explicit electronic communications former Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) allegedly sent to underage former congressional pages -- and the House Republican leadership's alleged cover-up of Foley's behavior -- have produced a wave of misinformation. To aid members of the media in covering the scandal, Media Matters for America has compiled a list of the top myths, falsehoods, and baseless assertions surrounding the controversy.

Table of Contents

Democrats and their allies orchestrated the Foley scandal as a political dirty trick

Many media outlets, without any basis whatsoever, have repeated the charge by House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and others that Democrats or liberals are behind the Foley scandal. The charge has appeared in various ways; some examples include:

  • Hastert, as reported in the Chicago Tribune: “The people who want to see this thing blow up are ABC News and a lot of Democratic operatives, people funded by George Soros.” ... “All I know is what I hear and what I see. I saw Bill Clinton's adviser, Richard Morris, was saying these guys knew about this all along. If somebody had this info, when they had it, we could have dealt with it then.” At the time, Hastert acknowledged that he had no evidence to support his charge.
  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), who asked: “What if it does turn out that, in fact, this entire thing was rigged by liberals and Democrats, that this entire thing was done deliberately and methodically, and in fact, it is the equivalent of a large dirty trick.”
  • Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA): “Are we saying that a 15-year-old child would've sat on e-mails that were XXX-rated for three years and suddenly spring them out right on the eve of an election? That's just a little bit too suspicious, even for Washington, D.C.”
  • Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC): As Media Matters noted, MSNBC host Chris Matthews asked McHenry if Democrats “had anything to do with holding information” about Foley's alleged communications with the former pages “and dropping it on ABC,” the network that first publicized the story. McHenry replied that “I don't know that they did not,” and then noted that he had written a letter demanding that "[House Democratic Leader] Nancy Pelosi [CA] and [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman] Rahm Emanuel [IL] ... submit themselves under oath and say clearly, yes or no, did they have prior knowledge of the instant messages and/or emails." McHenry later stated that “this is not about Dennis Hastert” and added: "[T]he only question that remains is what did the Democrat [sic] leadership know and when did they know it?" Matthews also failed to challenge Kingston's statement that he “would be very surprised if Foley's opponent [Democratic challenger Tim Mahoney] knew absolutely nothing of this.”

But these various charges -- that Democrats or their allies knew about the emails and instant messages long ago and, purposefully and in a coordinated fashion, released them to the media in a way designed for maximum political advantage -- have no basis. In fact, several media reports have contradicted such charges.

An October 11 Washington Post article undermined such charges. The Post article reported that, beginning in November 2005, “Democrats” or a “Democratic operative” unsuccessfully attempted to get several news organizations -- including Harper's (in May) and the St. Petersburg Times (in November 2005) -- to publish the emails. The article reported that "[a] second source emerged, however, just last month, peddling the e-mails to several other publications, including The Post." The article also noted that the reporter who did publish the emails -- ABC News' Brian Ross -- “has stressed that his initial source was a Republican,” as Media Matters has also noted. In addition, The Hill newspaper reported that the media received Foley's alleged emails “from a House GOP aide” who “has been a registered Republican since becoming eligible to vote.”

Furthermore, the Post article reported that, according to Ken Silverstein of Harper's, his " 'Democratic operative' " source " 'was not working in concert with the national Democratic Party' " and that " '[t]his person was genuinely disgusted by Foley's behavior, amazed that other publications had declined to publish stories about the emails, and concerned that Foley might still be seeking contact with pages.' "

As for the more explicit instant messages, the Post reported that Ross's source for them “stressed that he is a 'staunch Republican' who 'wouldn't vote for a Democrat ever.' ” That source decided to give the messages to Ross after Ross's September 28 report on the alleged Foley emails, the Post reported. At that point, he told the Post, “I decided that it was in the best interests of kids in general, pages and my friends specifically that Foley be dealt with quickly and swiftly so that he couldn't hurt anyone else.”

The Post revealed that its source for the instant messages was a former page and college-aged “Democratic operative” who wants the Democrats to win control of the House in November, but reported that “when approached by a Post reporter about the instant messages, he was reluctant to provide them. Days later, he did so.” According the Post, "[t]he two sources said they had conferred about the instant messages, which they had known about for months," and that their source gave them the instant messages “subsequent[]” to Ross's having received them from his reportedly Republican source.

In addition, a Chicago Tribune article reported that "[s]enior Republican officials contacted Hastert's office before his news conference Thursday [October 5] to urge that he not repeat the charges, and he backed away from them in his news conference," as the weblog TPMmuckraker.com noted.

Nevertheless, several media outlets, including National Public Radio, NBC's David Gregory and Tim Russert, and ABC's George Stephanopoulos, have reported this allegation, without any challenge. Notably, as Media Matters documented, CNN repeatedly reported Hastert's allegations and similar charges made by other Republicans on October 5 but did not once mention the article in The Hill or Ross's statement.

Hastert did not learn about Foley's alleged behavior until September 29

Several media accounts have reported, without challenge, Hastert's initial claim that he learned of the concerns regarding Foley's alleged behavior only on September 29, the day that Foley resigned. But, as Media Matters documented, Hastert later said he would not dispute the contention by Rep. Thomas Reynolds (R-NY) that Reynolds had brought the issue to his attention in the spring of 2006 (though Hastert claimed not to remember the discussion), and conceded that his aides had learned of it in late 2005. Further, several outlets entirely ignored House Majority Leader John Boehner's (R-OH) conflicting statements regarding whether he discussed the problem with Hastert.

Examples of media uncritically reporting Hastert's claim that he only recently learned of Foley's alleged actions include October 2 reports from The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Associated Press. Another example is a report by NBC News correspondent Mike Viqueira on the October 5 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

CHRIS MATTHEWS (host): So much of this involves: Who do you believe? Mike, as you know, the speaker has one point of view. He says nobody really warned me. A couple of the other leaders said that Reynolds, of course, and Boehner said, they did warn a staff member. He's just resigned. Said he did warn the speaker's staff people. Why don't they go lickety-split to the question at the top: Who's telling the truth? Why do they take weeks to do that?

VIQUEIRA: Well, good question. You know, Hastert has largely stuck by his story that he didn't learn about the emails and the IMs and the rest of it until last Friday, the day that Foley quit. I think a lot of Republican members now are starting to sympathize with the speaker, Chris. I'm hearing a lot about a potential backlash -- you know the speaker brought out the George Soros card today -- that the Democrats were after him. He singled out ABC News.

The alleged Foley emails that House Republicans possessed were merely “overly friendly”

Many media reports have uncritically repeated Hastert's characterization of alleged emails between Foley and a page sponsored by Rep. Rodney Alexander (R-LA) as merely “overly friendly.” As Media Matters has noted, Hastert has called the alleged emails “over friendly” to justify the House Republican leadership's failure to investigate Foley's alleged behavior when it was first informed of them. However, as Media Matters has noted, the Los Angeles Times reported that experts in psychiatry and sexual misconduct have suggested that Foley's alleged emails go well beyond “overly friendly” ; for example, one psychiatry expert told the Times that “they do in fact raise a red flag.” In addition, as Media Matters has documented, several conservatives and Republicans have objected to Hastert's characterization of the emails as “over friendly” and have argued that they should have provoked deeper scrutiny from House Republican leaders when they first came to light.

But news reports have uncritically relayed Hastert's terminology for the emails. For example, Fox News chief political correspondent Carl Cameron reported on the October 4 edition of Fox News' Special Report with Brit Hume:

CAMERON: Reynolds says he acted appropriately, alerting superiors in the spring when he learned of Foley's overly friendly emails to former pages, then Friday, when he learned of the salacious communication and demanded Foley's resignation.

Another example is a report by NBC's Mike Taibbi on the October 2 broadcast of NBC's Today:

TAIBBI: At least five Republican house members did know ahead of time, some nearly a year ago, about emails described as “over-friendly” that Foley sent a 16-year-old male page, though not about any overtly sexual messages.

The Foley scandal has not affected voters or congressional races

Some media outlets, such as CNN, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, have reported without challenge Republican claims that the Foley scandal has not affected voters or congressional races, as Media Matters documented. In fact, at this point, several public opinion polls indicate that the Foley scandal could be hurting Republicans. A CBS/New York Times poll conducted October 5-8 found that 13 percent of independent voters, and 21 percent of all voters, said the Foley scandal had made them more likely to vote Democratic. An AP/Ipsos poll conducted October 2-4 found that 66 percent of respondents said that the “recent disclosures of corruption and scandal in Congress” would be at least “moderately important” to their “vote in November,” with 48 percent indicating it would be “very” or “extremely” important. The poll also found that 62 percent of respondents were either “dissatisfied” or “angry” with “the Republican leadership in Congress.” The AP poll had a margin of error of +/- 2.8 percent. Similarly, an October 5 Time magazine poll found that a “quarter” of respondents “say the affair makes them less likely to vote for Republican candidates in their districts come November,” and that "[t]wo-thirds of Americans aware of the lurid e-mails set [sic] to congressional pages by a G.O.P congressman believe Republican leaders tried to cover up the scandal."

While three recent polls -- ABC News/Washington Post, CBS News/New York Times, and Newsweek -- have shown no change outside the margin of error on whether respondents would vote for a Democratic or Republican congressional candidate in November, two other recent polls showed large shifts toward Democrats. A USA Today/Gallup poll conducted October 6-8 found that Democrats had made significant gains among likely voters since the Gallup poll last month. While Democrats and Republicans were tied at 48 percent in Gallup's September 15-17 poll, that has now shifted to a 23-point advantage for Democrats, 59 percent to 36 percent. Similarly, a CNN poll conducted October 6-8 found that, among likely voters, Democrats led Republicans 58 percent to 37 percent; by contrast, a CNN poll conducted as the Foley scandal broke, on September 29-October 2, had Democrats leading Republicans 53 percent to 42 percent.

In addition, the Foley scandal appears to be affecting some individual races. For example, one member of the House leadership, Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-NY), appears to have lost ground since the scandal broke. While a September 28 SurveyUSA poll had Reynolds ahead of his Democratic challenger, Jack Davis, 45 percent to 43 percent, SurveyUSA's October 5 poll of the race has Davis leading, 50 percent to 45 percent. While the margins of error for these polls were plus or minus 4.5 points and 4.6 points, respectively, the trend toward Davis appears to be supported by another recent poll in the district, a Zogby International poll conducted for The Buffalo News and released on October 7. In that poll, Reynolds trailed Davis 48 percent to 33 percent.

Hastert and the GOP leadership forced Foley to resign after they learned of the lurid instant messages

Several media figures have uncritically reported that Hastert and the GOP leadership forced Foley to resign from Congress after they heard of his alleged sexually explicit instant messages with underage pages. For example, as Media Matters noted, in an October 3 entry on the National Review Online's weblog The Corner, National Review White House correspondent Byron York uncritically noted Hastert's claim on the October 3 Rush Limbaugh Show that "[w]e took care of Mr. Foley" and that "[w]e ... asked him to resign." But, a day earlier, when asked in a press conference “whether the leadership asked Foley to resign,” Hastert had responded: “I think Foley resigned almost immediately upon the outbreak of this information, and so we really didn't have a chance to ask him to resign.”

The claim that Hastert and the Republican leadership forced Foley to resign has recently gone unchallenged in several media venues, despite the contradictions in Hastert's own account. For example, on the October 6 edition of NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams, NBC News correspondent Chip Reid uncritically reported Rep. Adam Putnam's (R-FL) claim that the House leadership “acted aggressively and within hours -- within hours of the explicit emails coming to light, they demanded Foley's resignation.” Putnam was presumably referring to the sexually explicit instant messages Foley allegedly sent to an underage former page, because Hastert's office reportedly knew of the emails by at least February 2006. From the October 8 edition of NBC's Nightly News Weekend Edition:

REID: But Republican Adam Putnam says there's only one culprit: Foley himself.

PUTNAM [clip from ABC News' This Week]: The speaker's office acted proactively. They acted aggressively and within hours -- within hours of the explicit emails coming to light, they demanded Foley's resignation.

REID: Putnam appeared on the show because of the Foley scandal, sitting in for Congressman Tom Reynolds, head of the Republican campaign committee. He's in upstate New York struggling to hold on to his job.

Gay men are more likely than heterosexual men to sexually abuse children

As Media Matters has documented, during an appearance on MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, Family Research Council president Tony Perkins used the Foley scandal to promote a falsehood about gay men -- that they are more likely than straight men to sexually abuse children, based on the claim that gay men are overrepresented in child sex-abuse cases. In fact, a 1995 study released by the American Psychological Association found that “gay men are no more likely than heterosexual men to perpetrate child sexual abuse.” The argument that gay men are overrepresented in such cases is based on what John Hopkins University psychiatrist Frederick Berlin has described as the “flawed assumption” that men who abuse young boys are also attracted to grown men.

Kirk Fordham's claim that Hastert's office was told about Foley before 2005 is uncorroborated

Recently, former Foley chief of staff Kirk Fordham asserted that he told Hastert of Foley's alleged behavior long before 2005, an accusation denied by Hastert chief of staff Scott Palmer. Some media reports have presented Fordham's accusation and Palmer's denial in a “he said, she said” manner, such as an October 16 article in Time magazine, ignoring the evidence that it is Fordham who is telling the truth. But as Media Matters noted, an unnamed current Republican congressional staffer recently came forth to corroborate Fordham's account, according to October 7 reports by various news outlets, including The Washington Post and The New York Times. An October 8 Times article further reported that Fordham's attorney stated Fordham is prepared to testify under oath before the House ethics committee that Fordham arranged a meeting with Palmer “as early as 2003” ( “2003 or earlier,” according to the October 7 Post article) to discuss Foley's alleged contacts with underage congressional pages.

Speaker Hastert “took responsibility” for the Foley scandal

Numerous media outlets have reported that, at his October 5 press conference, Hastert “took responsibility” for the Foley scandal even though, as Media Matters has noted, Hastert also stated at the same press conference that “I haven't done anything wrong, obviously.”

For example, separate October 7 New York Times articles by reporters Adam Nagourney and Carl Hulse uncritically reported Hastert's claim, as did ABC News chief Washington correspondent George Stephanopoulos, who stated the following during an appearance on the October 5 edition of ABC's World News with Charles Gibson:

CHARLES GIBSON (anchor): And we're gonna bring in now our chief Washington correspondent, George Stephanopoulos. George, I used the phrase that the speaker was working at damage control. So, there's been a lot of damage this week. Did he control it?

STEPHANOPOULOS: I think he was pretty effective today, Charlie, and I guess President Bush must have thought so, too, because he called him for the first time. By apologizing, accepting responsibility, getting statements of support from his fellow leaders and promising to fix the problem, he lays the groundwork for a political defense, and that ethics committee investigation gives all other Republicans a reason to say Hastert can stay for now, they can wait until the investigation is done.

Conservative evangelical voters are particularly outraged by Foley scandal

Many media reports have suggested that conservative Christians are likely to be particularly outraged by the Foley scandal. But as Media Matters noted, this suggestion is based on a dubious assumption: that conservative Christian voters -- so-called “family values” voters -- are more concerned than others with protecting children, and therefore will condemn more harshly than others allegations of a cover-up of alleged predatory behavior toward children. Even veteran Republican pollster Matthew Dowd has stated that "[i]t's not just the voters who care about 'family values' who might be driven away" by the Foley scandal.

Nonetheless, Media Matters documented many media reports suggesting that Christian conservatives will be particularly upset by the Foley scandal, including:

  • Newsweek columnist Howard Fineman stated that the “Foley story is aimed right at” those “evangelical Bible-believing Christians” who have strongly supported Republicans in the past. (MSNBC's Countdown, 10/3/06)
  • CNN anchor Carol Lin reported that the “scandal is infuriating religious conservatives. But will they express that anger with their vote 30 days from now?” (CNN Newsroom, 10/8/06)

Upon learning of emails, House Republican leadership or Rep. Shimkus told Foley to end all contact with pages

Media reports have also falsely claimed that House Republicans privately told Foley in the spring of 2006 to stop all contact with congressional pages. For example, Wall Street Journal OpinionJournal.com assistant editor Brendan Miniter falsely asserted in his October 3 column that upon “look[ing] at the few emails” Foley had allegedly written to one former page, Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL), chairman of the House Page Board, decided “to confront Mr. Foley and tell him to cut off all direct contact with underage pages.” As Media Matters noted, Shimkus limited his warning to Foley only to the specific page in question, telling Foley “to cease all contact with this former House Page,” according to a statement published on Shimkus's website. In his statement, Shimkus also asserted that he and “the then Clerk of the House, who manages the Page Program,” had advised Foley “to be especially mindful of his conduct with respect to current and former House Pages,” but nowhere in his statement did he say that he or anyone else told Foley to “cut off all direct contact with underage pages.”

An October 2 Washington Post article headlined “FBI to Examine Foley's E-mails” also falsely reported that Foley was told to “leave pages alone.”

CREW withheld emails and other information from FBI, congressional leaders

Several conservatives have recently accused Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, of withholding information from the FBI in order to preserve the scandal until closer to the midterm elections. As Media Matters noted, the accusation arose from reports that CREW sent to the FBI in July copies of the emails Foley allegedly sent to an underage former congressional page. Anonymous Justice Department sources claimed that the copies of the emails CREW sent to the FBI were incomplete and heavily redacted; that CREW refused to comply with requests for further information; and that the FBI did investigate the emails, but determined that there was not enough to evidence suggest a criminal act.

However, as Media Matters noted, the FBI has contradicted itself on these allegations. For example, the FBI claimed that it did not pursue the Foley case after receiving the emails because CREW refused to provide enough information. However, the FBI also claimed that it did investigate the emails and found that they did not indicate that a crime had been committed.

Despite this, media outlets have uncritically reported the anonymous sources' accusations against CREW, without challenge. As Media Matters documented, CNN justice correspondent Kelli Arena's October 4 report -- which first aired on The Situation Room, and re-aired several more times on October 4 and 5 -- failed to note the FBI's disputed claims that CREW redacted the Foley emails and refused the FBI's request for more information, instead reporting: “Now, the FBI is refusing comment. But government officials insist that the FBI did investigate. In fact, they say that three squads looked at the emails. A public corruption squad, a criminal squad, and then finally a cyber squad. Now, we're told that agents determined at the time there wasn't enough evidence to suggest any criminal activity.”

As Media Matters has noted, although CREW brought the emails to the FBI's attention, Fox News host Sean Hannity baselessly accused CREW on the October 5 edition of Fox News' Hannity & Colmes of “prioritiz[ing] partisan politics over the safety and security of children.” During the same program, U.S. News & World Report senior writer Michael Barone stated that CREW “would also have been wise to turn [the emails] over to ... the House Page Committee,” even though the House leadership reportedly learned of the emails long before CREW did.

A “velvet mafia” on Capitol Hill knew of Foley's alleged behavior and protected him from public exposure

Media accounts have also suggested that a cadre of gay congressional staffers protected Foley from exposure. For example, writing in the October 16 issue of Time magazine, national political correspondent Karen Tumulty uncritically reported that according to “a whisper campaign [that] has been launched in Washington,” former Foley chief of staff Kirk Fordham may have been one of the “gay staff members” belonging to “a 'velvet mafia' at the upper levels of G.O.P. leadership” that sought to protect Foley.

But as Media Matters noted, Fordham has claimed that he sought to alert Hastert's office to Foley's alleged behavior at least three years ago, and an unnamed current Republican congressional staffer recently came forth to corroborate Fordham's account.