The Greatest Scoop I Never Had
| American Journalism Review
| AJR Features : FIRST PERSON
| From AJR, December 2000|
The Greatest Scoop I Never Had
A Maine newspaper reporter recalls the decision not to publish a story about George W. Bush's DUI arrest.
By Ted Cohen
W HEN THE LOCAL POLICE chief told me in July that George W. Bush had once been charged with driving under the influence, I knew I had a big story.
But I had no idea how big until I got scooped on it.
First, let's backtrack with a bit of history.
I am 49 years old. For 25 years, I have been a general assignment staff writer for the Portland Press Herald in Maine. Since 1988, my beat has included Kennebunkport, summer home for the Bush family since the turn of the century. This past summer, as rumors began surfacing that George W. Bush may have used cocaine, I started wondering about the Texas governor's life as a young man.
Bush had already admitted his past drinking problem, which, he said, ended in the mid-1980s after a talk with the Rev. Billy Graham. Bush says he hasn't had a drink since 1986. But I figured that, since the then-Republican presidential candidate spent summers in Kennebunkport and had a fondness for alcohol, that maybe, just maybe, he had run into trouble with the law.
I had no evidence. Just a gut feeling. The kind of instinctive feeling that gnaws at a newsman and says, "You better check it out before someone else does."
So in July I called Kennebunkport Police Chief Robert Sullivan. We chatted, and I asked him whether he "had any dirt" on Bush. He asked what I meant by dirt. I replied that I wanted to know whether Bush had a criminal record.
Sullivan, 53, whose institutional memory dates to 1972 when he was a young cop on the Kennebunkport force, told me that the department had once nabbed Bush for drunk driving back in the 1970s.
The conversation ended, and I thought about what the chief had told me. Since I saw no immediate need to rush into print, I knew I could think about it.
A few days later, I went to see the chief in person. We shot the breeze. At some point, I asked him again about the Bush thing. "If I want to see the records, can I?" I asked. Sullivan said I could but wasn't specific.
"If I can't, I may have to file a Freedom of Information request," I told him. He replied, "Ted, if you do, you will make my life miserable."
"Chief, I don't want to make your life miserable," I clearly remember telling him. "But I don't want to read this in the Washington Post."
I went back to the office and told my editor, Andrew Russell, what I had learned. Andrew, a man of the highest intellect and impeccable news judgment, wondered aloud about a 24-year-old drunk-driving case against a presidential candidate. Why would we print this now? Why didn't we print it before? Why is it news? We know Bush has admitted to having had a drinking problem, so is this a big deal?
Andrew asked the questions that an editor must ask. They are the kinds of questions that reporters sometimes fail to ask, because we get caught up in the excitement of a scoop.
Andrew convinced me that we could kill the story and that there was good reason to do so.
As time went on, and none of the "biggies"--the Washington Post, the New York Times--wrote about the 1976 arrest, I became convinced that our decision not to publish was the right one. By July, almost all the major newspapers had done exhaustive profiles of each candidate. They had to have seen the arrest record.
Now, I think I went into denial. It's a survival technique.
On November 2, a local TV reporter, Erin Fehlau of Fox 51, broke the story. I just happened to have the TV tuned to Fox 51 when it ran a brief update around 7 p.m. I'd have jumped out a second-story window if the story had been a shock to me. But it wasn't. I knew all about it, and I knew that I had told an editor. I'd done the right thing. There's a reason why Andrew is an editor and I'm a reporter.
But now, I am kicking myself. I failed to follow my heart, which told me I had a big story, the biggest of my career, a national story, perhaps the biggest locally generated story the Press Herald has ever had.
Make that, the biggest story the Press Herald has never had.
If I had it to do again, perhaps I'd have argued with Andrew. Perhaps I should have pushed harder to publish. That was my fault, no one else's.
Andrew, I am sure, will relive this memory as long as I will. We will never know whether we made the right decision. No one will. These are judgment calls. We erred on the side of caution, of responsibility. Maybe that's not so bad.
I will survive losing the biggest scoop of my life. But I will never forget it.###
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