A Late-Breaking Campaign Skeleton
Bush's DUI arrest
Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.
O N FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 3, Andrew Russell of the Portland Press Herald in Maine walked into his boss' office to make a confession.
"I think I made a terrible mistake," the regional editor told Managing Editor Curt Hazlett. And Hazlett agreed completely. Russell had let "the big one" slip away.
In July, Press Herald reporter Ted Cohen, 49, discovered George W. Bush's 1976 drunk driving arrest in Kennebunkport, Maine--a story that mysteriously eluded the national media, which claimed to have combed through every inch of Bush's background.
Cohen discussed the arrest with Russell, and the two agreed that it was old news and that Bush's past drinking problem was no secret. Russell, says Hazlett, put it out of his mind. (Cohen, however, didn't.)
The Press Herald staffers didn't hear of the arrest again until Portland's WPXT-TV Fox 51 reported the story at 7 p.m. on November 2, just before the start of "The Drew Carey Show." Fox News Channel had sent the story ping-ponging around the nation about 45 minutes earlier, courtesy of WPXT. Fox News went with the story the minute a Bush spokesman confirmed it.
Russell had never mentioned a word about Bush's 24-year-old arrest to any other Press Herald editors. Nor had Cohen. (Russell declined to comment.)
"He's a very good editor, a young guy," says Hazlett of Russell. "I certainly feel bad for him. There was nothing I could say to him that would make him feel better or worse. There's no one who hasn't made a big mistake. It's made bigger by the fact that there are national implications to the story. I feel terrible that we had this story. Had he taken just a little more time and gotten another opinion, it would have changed how the whole thing was reported."
Instead of the story breaking in July, it broke five days before the election, obscuring the issue of responsibility and drunk driving. The focus became criticism of the media for publicizing the arrest so close to Election Day.
Most news organizations felt they had an obligation to print such information about a presidential candidate. But they also are obligated to make sure the story's accurate, in context and fair to the subject.
WPXT News Director Kevin Kelly says his station, with a total staff of 25, accomplished all of that in handling a hot national story. On November 2, WPXT reporter Erin Fehlau, 27, was hanging around a county courthouse, awaiting a verdict on an arson trial involving a young woman accused of starting dormitory fires at a local college. It was a big story. But then a bigger one fell in her lap.
Around 3 p.m., while Fehlau was waiting, a police officer told the reporter about a conversation she had overheard. A judge and a lawyer had been discussing Bush's driving-under-the-influence arrest. After the verdict, Fehlau spotted attorney Tom Connolly, a Democratic National Convention delegate who had run unsuccessfully for governor of Maine. He confirmed the arrest and gave her the case number.
"I was able to call the courthouse, give them the docket number, give them the name, give his birth date," Fehlau said on ABC's "Nightline" on November 2, hours after breaking the story. "They were able to verify that it did, indeed, happen. At that point, I was able to call the secretary of state's office, get a copy of his driving record faxed to our station."
Meanwhile, Kelly went to Bush's Web site to make sure the birth dates matched. There could be another George W. Bush, he thought. It could be a setup. Says Kelly: "If you are going to report on something like this, you make sure you are absolutely right."
Kelly had only been working in Maine for two years. He wasn't sure if the arrest was even news. His staff is young, and no one there had worked at the station in 1976. "I called Fox News in New York City to see if we were flogging a dead horse," he says.
They weren't. Fox News Channel quickly confirmed the arrest with the Bush campaign and ran the story shortly after 6 p.m. The Associated Press picked it up, and the incident soon became the focus of campaign coverage.
Also at about 6 p.m., Fehlau called the now-retired arresting officer, Calvin Bridges, at home. Bridges confirmed the arrest but refused to go on camera. He told Fehlau, "I always knew this day would come."
"We had the paperwork," Kelly says. "But it wasn't until the reporter interviewed the arresting officer that I was comfortable."
WPXT aired a 30-second update at 7 p.m by anchor Joe Palmieri. Fehlau had a more detailed piece on WPXT's regularly scheduled 10 p.m. news show.
Reporter Susan Kimball at the Portland NBC affiliate, WCSH-TV, also got the tip at about the same time as Fehlau. (So did Press Herald police reporter David Hench, who reported the story for the next day's paper.) Kimball tore back to the station, "freaked, and then went to another courthouse in York County and got a copy of the court record from 1976," says WCSH General Manager Steve Thaxton.
The record, Thaxton says, was on a 3-by-5-inch file card. "The file had already been pulled," he says. "We have no idea how many people had looked at it prior. But clearly it was sitting on a county clerk's desk."
Kimball, with 17 years' experience, knew she needed a response from the Bush campaign. "We really felt that given the context of the lateness of this news in the election cycle and that it's pretty explosive information that could turn an election of the leader of the free world," says Thaxton, "that it was in everyone's best interest to get confirmation from Bush."
But before Kimball could get the Bush confirmation, the story had aired. WCSH chose not to cut into programming, but ran a brief piece during its regularly scheduled 8:45 p.m. update. Kimball's story then led the 11 p.m. news. "We wouldn't break in with this kind of story," says Thaxton. "We break in only on issues of massive local interest, and we do it so rarely that it has to be extremely important."
No one disputes that WPXT-TV broke the story. "We did a lot of things right," says a proud Kelly. "We did not run with it the moment we found out about it. We waited three hours until we ran it. It took four sources for me, because of the serious nature of it. I'm an old-school guy. We have a small station, a small staff, and we had a big test."