For much of the country, it was a shocking story about the sexual abuse of Boy Scouts. For us, it was déjà vu.
On October 14, 1993, we began our days more than 200 miles apart listening to the same report on CBS Radio. Isn't that odd, we both thought. CBS is reporting that over the past 20 years the Boy Scouts of America had dismissed more than 1,800 leaders for allegedly molesting boys.
Odd because we had first reported on sex abuse in the Scouts when we were working together at the Washington Times in May 1991. Two years later we did follow-up stories that said exactly what CBS was saying now. Must have been a slow news day.
Wrong. Over the following three days, the tale of abusive Scout leaders made the New York Times, the front page of USA Today, CNN, the "CBS Evening News," and hundreds of newspapers and newscasts across the country. The national media were feasting on a story that we had last reported four months earlier and that had been around for five years.
Many reporters know the feeling: They toil in obscurity on a good story, wondering why the rest of the media doesn't seem interested. Suddenly, everyone pounces at once, as if they all had the same assignment editor.
The abusive Scout leader story is just another example of how the media decide what's newsworthy, and how they pick up on – or ignore – each other's work. What began as a local court story took half a decade to work its way up the media food chain.
Our tale begins in December 1988. A lawsuit by an abused Scout in Reston, Virginia, forces the Boy Scouts of America to turn over 231 confidential files on Scout leaders who were banned for alleged child molesting from 1975 through 1984. The Washington Post, United Press International and several local dailies cover the trial and mention the heretofore secret files, which register a zero on the media Richter scale. Boyle, then a reporter at the Times, reads about the case and convinces his editors to let him rummage through the files in his spare time.
A year-and-a-half later, in August 1990, Boyle and Marchak, then the paper's computer database editor, begin entering information from the Boy Scout files on a newsroom computer and hunt for other abuse cases not in the files.
Nine months later, in May 1991, the Times publishes a week-long series analyzing sex abuse in the Boy Scouts. The series lists 416 cases in which male Scout leaders were arrested or banned from the organization during the previous two years after allegations surfaced that they had molested Scouts. Boyle and Marchak wait for the national media to pick up on the story. They wonder if they should say, "Yes, Ted," or "Yes, Mr. Koppel."
Silence. Except for "Inside Edition," which runs a 10-minute segment about abuse in Scouting, no one bites.
In September an attorney in Sacramento, California, representing a boy suing the Scouts because he says he was abused by his Scoutmaster, gives the Washington Times' list to the judge in the case. The judge orders the Scouts to release all of its files on child-molesting leaders from 1971 on. The Associated Press sends out a brief story on the order, but doesn't follow-up when the files are actually submitted.
The Boy Scouts of America submits 1,871 files. In early 1992 the attorney, Mike Rothschild, calls Boyle to tell him about the files. Would he like to come out and see them? Boyle gets on a plane.
In October 1992 Boyle leaves the Times to begin writing "Scouts Honor," a book about sex abuse in the Scouts.
Eight months later, in June 1993, Boyle and Marchak each report new stories based on the files from California. Boyle works as a consultant for the ABC newsmagazine "Day One," which leads one show with a segment analyzing the 1,871 cases of Scout leaders banned for suspected child molesting. The next day, Mar-chak's story on the latest Scout files runs on the front page of the Washington Times.
We're sure our stories will finally become national news because the numbers are so high, and because we assume other reporters couldn't ignore ABC and a Washington daily.
Wrong again. Silence. Boyle figures his book will sell 20 copies.
Unbeknownst to us, an AP editor in Wash-ington sees Marchak's story and passes it to the wire service's New York bureau. New York passes it to Sacramento, where reporter Steve Geissinger is told to check into it. Geissinger interviews Rothschild, spends weeks looking through the files and examining several of the cases, and prepares his own story.
Which brings us to October 13, 1993. Geissinger's story goes out on the wire that evening, reporting that more than 1,800 Scout leaders were banned from 1971 through 1991 for allegedly molesting children. The next morning, the story is aired on CBS Radio. CNN sees the AP story and does its own piece, featuring an interview with Rothschild. Meanwhile, we receive calls from several colleagues asking what the news peg is for these Boy Scout sex abuse reports. There is no peg, we tell them; it's all been reported before.
But the AP story is picked up in every major media market in the country. The New York Times runs it in its A section. The "CBS Evening News" does a piece featuring an interview with Rothschild. Among those calling Rothschild for interviews: USA Today, "Dateline NBC," National Public Radio, Parenting magazine, the Medford Mail Tribune in Oregon, WSVN-TV in Miami, WOAI radio in Texas, and Children's Express, a New York City-based news service written by children.
"What's going on?" Rothschild asks. He notes that the files have been lying around for more than 18 months, and that "Day One" aired video of the files during its report. "There is no news here," he says. He wants to know why there is all of the attention now.
We tell him we'd love to analyze it, but we're trying to catch up with our own story. Marchak had recently joined the Washington bureau of Cleveland's Plain Dealer. Her editors ask her to write a story based on the AP article – in essence, to follow up her own story from four months earlier. After she files a new piece, her editors agree that there is no news and kill it.
Boyle, frustrated that his own investigation is taking off without him months before "Scout's Honor" is due to hit bookstores, shamelessly tries to get the book mentioned in some of the stories. He gets quoted in a few newspapers and does a talk show with WOAI. After three days, the furor is over.
During the following weeks, we found out how our pet story finally became a hit.
Reporters at several news organizations speculated that the 1991 series in the Washington Times didn't get picked up nationally because the paper is owned by the Unification Church, a fact that compels many news organizations to ignore it.
However, the AP did notice Marchak's Washington Times piece in 1993. Julie Dunlap, AP's assistant managing editor for news, says she asked the Sacramento bureau to follow up on the report because the issue had nationwide importance and had been largely unreported. She and Geissinger thought that the AP could expand on the Times piece, but they didn't know that "Day One" had also done a story. "Day One" was new at the time; the same report on ABC's "20/20" or CBS' "60 Minutes" might have drawn more attention.
The AP, on the other hand, gets plenty of attention in newsrooms; the wire service "can be an agenda-setting organization," Geissinger says. But even he was surprised by how many newspapers ran his piece, and by how news organizations such as CBS, CNN and USA Today did their own reports after seeing his story on their terminals.
But while doing their interviews, CBS and CNN learned that "Day One" had reported the story months earlier.
"I had a feeling we were just recycling some information that had already been out there," says Mark Hooper, a CBS producer at the time. "But the feeling was that the interest level was so high, it was worth doing."
In the end, those who knew the story was old relied on a journalistic guideline: If it was news to them, it would probably be news to the audience.
It's a good guideline. Geissinger's report and the spinoffs gave the abuse story more exposure than it ever had before. When Boyle had begun work on his book, most people he talked to hadn't heard that the Scouts had an abuse problem. When he started promoting the book late last year, the most common response was, "Sex abuse in the Boy Scouts? Didn't somebody just do a story on that?" l