AJR  Features
From AJR,   January/February 1997

An Affair to Ignore   

Why did a story about Bob Dole's dalliance get so little play?

By Susan Paterno
Susan Paterno (paterno@chapman.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

Related reading:
   » An Easy Call

The story was nailed down: A woman who said she had been involved with Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole, the family values candidate, was on the record revealing they had had an adulterous affair in the late 1960s.

In the past, the same sort of story had ended Democrat Sen. Gary Hart's political career and had nearly derailed the presidential aspirations of Bill Clinton. But Dole was spared. The story went nowhere.

Many news organizations ignored it completely, even after it was trumpeted in the National Enquirer and picked up by the New York Daily News. Others mentioned it but gave it low-key treatment. Few were the screaming headlines accorded similar stories in the past.

Why the "So what" reaction? Some news executives say they ignored the affair because the public no longer wants to hear about politicians' private lives. And besides, they argue, it was old news, irrelevant, even though Dole had attacked Clinton's character and had announced two years earlier on "Meet the Press" that politicians' private lives, including their sexual behavior, are "fair game" during presidential campaigns.

ý few editors argued that they thought the issue relevant, but couldn't confirm Dole's adultery, a rationale Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Stephen Hess, author of several books on journalism and government, finds unconvincing. "They couldn't have tried very hard to verify it," Hess says. "Nobody questioned the veracity of the story. That wasn't the issue. This was documented fact. The issue was relevancy."

Though Dole never denied the dalliance, the candidate launched a blame-the-media blitz on October 25, the day the New York Daily News ran its account of the affair. The response was designed to tell "the New York Times and the rest of the media, 'If you follow the National Enquirer and the Village Voice, you are out to get me,' " a top campaign strategist told the New Yorker. "It was a preemptive strike."

Conservative politicians often use such strategies to "bully journalists into softer reporting," says Jeff Cohen, executive director of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a liberal media-watch group. "I would have never published any of these [sex scandal] stories," Cohen says. "But you can't decide to cover the sexual affairs of Hart and Clinton and then cover up the affairs of Bush and Dole. Something's clearly wrong there."

Although Dole avoided attacking Clinton directly over the womanizing allegations that have dogged the president, he emphasized character as a major reason for choosing him over his rival and fashioned himself a family values candidate.

But just before the Republican National Convention in San Diego, Vanity Fair released to the press a lengthy profile by Gail Sheehy that depicted Dole as a man barely involved with raising his daughter Robin, the child of his first marriage to Phyllis Holden. In the last year of their 23-year marriage, Sheehy wrote in the magazine's September issue, "he had begun sleeping in the basement office of their Kansas City home" and "had dinner with his wife and child only twice – on Christmas and Easter." She also alluded to a Dole extramarital affair, but not with the woman who surfaced, albeit barely, in the 1996 campaign.

By late summer, reporters at Time and the Washington Post had found Meredith Roberts, an editor at a trade publication, who confirmed that she had dated Dole in the late 1960s while he was married to his first wife.

The news that the Post was on the story put Dole's campaign in a panic. In September, Dole aides met with Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. and asked him to kill it. Later Elizabeth Dole called Post Publisher Donald Graham to ask for restraint, Downie says.

In the Post newsroom, reporters and editors engaged in "lengthy discussions" about whether to publish a story, according to Downie. But while the paper had devoted considerable resources to pursuing the story, Downie ultimately decided that the paper shouldn't run it. Though many of his associates "had strong views" to the contrary, he says, Downie held his ground. "It just didn't pass the relevance test," he says.

Meanwhile, according to the November 18 Newsweek, Dole aides were plotting a strategy for dealing with an account of the affair: "Wait for publication and then attack the Post for indulging in trash journalism.... Dole would neither confirm nor deny the story, but rather castigate the press for wallowing in sleaze."

The affair finally found its way into print in late October, not in the Post but in a supermarket tabloid. The National Enquirer tracked down Roberts and published a story titled "Bob Dole Had a Secret Mistress," which was followed by an independently confirmed New York Daily News report that was picked up by the wires. A handful of regional dailies ran the story, according to a database search, playing it, as did the Orange County Register, as an inside brief.

"Dole had started attacking Clinton's character on some issues, but was doing somersaults to avoid attacking his personal character," explains the Register's Blair Charnley, news editor/wires. The story about Dole's affair seemed credible, he says, and raised "a legitimate question about the way Dole was conducting his campaign, specifically why he was handling the character issue the way he was. It seemed a legitimate, solid story, but not a big deal."

Because the Register, like most regional papers, depends on the wires for national news, "There was no interest in having our reporters follow it," he says. Newsday editors asked the paper's Washington bureau to investigate, Managing Editor Howard Schneider says, but it never found "independent evidence that [the adultery] was true... The chronology was fuzzy. If he had a relationship after he left his wife, so what?" The paper mentioned the affair briefly.

The three major networks, along with the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal, ignored it. "We spent all of five minutes discussing it," says Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger, before deciding "not to spend the resources it would take to nail it down." Because the affair occurred nearly 30 years ago and Dole subsequently divorced his first wife, "it doesn't profoundly or significantly change the relevance about his fitness to be president," Steiger says.

Besides, other news executives argue, the Dole sex scandal differed significantly from Clinton's. Though just about every journalist interviewed said Dole's paramour seemed more credible than either of Clinton's accusers, "no people were coming forward and holding news conferences" on the Dole story, as they had with Clinton, says Robin Sproul, a vice president at ABC News. CBS News refused to run the story in part "because of the public reaction," says Barbara Cochran, executive producer for political coverage. "Audiences and readers often react negatively to news like this. Unless you want to blatantly pander to people's interest in gossip, to print or broadcast something about someone's private life in the heat of a campaign, it should have relevance to the campaign. And we didn't see that."

Reporters from Time and Newsweek also confirmed the story independently. Time reporters expected the story to run before the election. At Newsweek, though, editors had decided to hold it for a post-election issue, according to Assistant Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief Evan Thomas. Thomas says he called Meredith Roberts and tried to talk her out of going on the record for one reason: To prevent rival Time from publishing the story first. "I was trying to screw my competitor out of a story," he says. "I fully acknowledged I was doing that at the time." Neither magazine ran the story before the election.

"It was a private story," says Time Managing Editor Walter Isaacson. "It wasn't right to drop it into a highly charged atmosphere the week before the election. It wasn't that relevant or interesting." Dole, he adds, "had sex 25 years ago. There's a so-what quality to it."

The Post eventually changed its mind and alluded to the Dole-Roberts relationship, but the reference was buried deep in the jump of a lengthy story in its Saturday, October 26, edition. During a stump speech in Texas, on the same day the wires carried stories about the affair, Dole urged the public to rise up against the nation's news media, making front page headlines across the country. "Don't read that stuff! Don't watch television!" Dole said. "You make up your mind! Don't let them make up your mind for you!"

The Post connected Dole's attack on the media to a "report in the New York Daily News today saying he had had a long term, extramarital affair with a Washington woman that began in 1968, nearly four years before the end of his first marriage... After extensive inquiries beginning in August, Washington Post reporters confirmed Dole's relationship with the woman, who still lives in the Washington area. Dole campaign officials would neither confirm nor deny any relationship," the story said.

It then turned to the question of why the Post had originally decided not to publish the allegations. What occurred 28 years ago was irrelevant to Dole's "current candidacy for president," Downie was quoted as saying, "and did not meet our standards for the publication of information about the private lives of public officials." The story further stated that, in making his decision, Downie held open the possibility that it "could be overtaken by events if another news organization published a story that created wide public interest."

In hindsight, Downie said recently, "I still think I made the right decision."

Newsday, on the other hand, would have run the story had its reporters been able to confirm it, says Managing Editor Schneider. "If the story were true, that he had a relationship while married, and it was a factor in the breakup of his marriage, then it is absolutely relevant. I'm not uncomfortable including information about a presidential candidate's private life when it comes to issues of character or integrity. We're not anguished about that."

No one bothered to report the affair's larger significance until after the election, when it surfaced in Time, the New Yorker and Newsweek. Post-mortems illuminated how the mere threat of a story had paralyzed the Dole campaign. The fear of the news becoming public, some speculated, kept Dole from attacking Clinton on the sex scandal issue.

Even so, Newsweek's Thomas believes the decision to hold the story was right. Reporters would have been unable to put the story in context before the election, he says. "It's the nature of the beast. Sex scandals always blow up. [Journalism] is such a raw, unfiltered process, it's impossible to do it in a measured way. Because the press is so competitive, they're always tripping over each other."

Some rank-and-file reporters reacted differently. Withholding the news "was a case of guys protecting guys," one Post reporter says; it was an example of "elite media behavior," a Time staff member complains. In its November 18 issue, Newsweek reported there had been a fierce debate at the Post between journalists who wanted to publish and most editors who "accepted the distinction between public trust and private actions. The Post and its owners..did not want to get into the business of investigating the dalliances of presidential candidates."

Post-election observers offered other theories as to why the story went nowhere.

"Nobody hates Dole as much as Clinton's enemies hate [Clinton]. So there was nobody to pick up [the story] and do a drumbeat," says the Orange County Register's Charnley. In fact, the national press corps might have deliberately gone soft on Dole because they have "great residual affection for Bob Dole the man," says Susan Rasky, a journalism professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a former congressional correspondent for the New York Times. "And there might have been some notion among editors that he was going to lose anyway, so why bother with it?

"In the wake of Clinton, we've learned the public doesn't give a damn about politicians' private lives," Rasky says, unless the behavior indicates hypocrisy, character flaws or an inability to govern. "Is Dole's attack on Clinton's character so hypocritical that he deserves to be hoisted on his own petard?

"Apparently," she says, "the judgment of the major news organizations was: It wasn't."