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Our decision on Gore story based on evidence, responsibility

Tribune vigorously investigated claims about former VP for a story

During the past 24 hours, we have received a number of inquiries - and some criticism - as to why the Portland Tribune did not publish allegations it investigated in 2007 and 2008 by a Portland massage therapist against former Vice President Al Gore.

These allegations have become public in the past 24 hours, due to an online story by the National Enquirer. That story involved an accusation that Gore molested a massage therapist during an Oct. 24, 2006, visit to Portland.

The Portland Tribune is not the National Enquirer - and we don't think most of our readers expect us to be.

In 2007 and 2008, Tribune reporter Nick Budnick spent several months looking into the allegation. He made public-records requests to obtain Portland police reports that contained very little useable, third-hand information - and that were released to us months after the incident allegedly occurred.

He tracked down the therapist and interviewed her. After initially declining to speak, she then refused to discuss the specifics of her allegations until after many weeks of frequent discussion and negotiation. (She had previously declined to meet with police or to press charges against Gore, whose representatives vigorously denied the accusations.)

In his investigation, Budnick interviewed numerous other sources in an attempt to corroborate statements made and information provided by the massage practitioner and also to get at the question of the story's credibility. Much of the information that was gathered as part of our journalistic due diligence was 'off the record.'

Along the way, we uncovered information that created significant questions in the minds of the four editors and the investigative reporter who were involved with this story. We still are not yet in a position to publish the information that helped dissuade us from the story.

Also factoring into our decision were conditions the therapist attempted to set forth concerning how the story would be written. She attempted to make her cooperation contingent upon her having a degree of editorial control that we couldn't allow.

In 2007, our choice was either to publish the existence of a third-hand accusation, with little corroborating evidence, or to hold publication until we had more evidence to support it. In 2008, after further reporting by Budnick, our choice was to either publish an ethically compromised story that omitted key facts or not to publish at all.

Frankly, we don't believe it is a journalist's responsibility to merely report accusations without also substantiating them. Some people - even other journalists - might disagree. But at the Tribune, we remain comfortable with the decisions we have made and recognize that our standards for accusing someone of a serious offense are different from those of a national tabloid.

In this case, the Enquirer's story was based on a later, more detailed police report that was filed on the woman's behalf in January 2009.

As the Enquirer's story has unfolded, and as it has become known that we looked into this matter before, two other questions have arisen - not so much from local readers, but from people who live in other parts of the country.

Here's how we respond:

1. If you chose not to run a story in 2007 and 2008, why are you doing so now?

There are two answers to this: When the Enquirer's story broke, we thought we could add context to that story by reporting what we could of our previous investigation. We had spent much more time investigating this accusation than the police had, and the fact that we didn't publish a story back then was something of a statement in itself.

But from a more practical standpoint, as soon as the Enquirer story broke, we also began getting calls from other reporters who had been told by the police that we had looked into the matter. We realized that we owed our readers the information that we are able to release, as well as an explanation.

2. Isn't your decision not to run a story in 2007 or 2008 a sign of liberal bias in the media? Wouldn't you have printed the story if the person accused was George W. Bush or Dick Cheney?

This is an easy question to answer, because we did, in fact, very much want to publish a story about the allegation against Al Gore. If we hadn't wanted to publish a story, we wouldn't have spent much of a year looking into it. We wouldn't have made public-records requests for documents that hadn't previously been released. We wouldn't have spent hours calling various massage therapists until we identified the correct one. We wouldn't have interviewed hotel employees and numerous people who know the woman. We wouldn't have contacted Gore for a response to the allegation. We wouldn't have placed carefully worded ads in cities around the country trying to find other massage therapists who might have had a similar experience with Gore.

The idea that we were protecting Gore is ludicrous, because we were doing everything we could to try to move this story forward.

It's been said that journalism, when practiced correctly, is a discipline of verification. Our job isn't simply to report that someone has been accused of an illicit act - months after the police had dismissed the case. Our job is to try to verify that such an accusation contains truth.

We're not saying we know what happened in that hotel room in October 2006 - we don't. We want our readers to know, however, that we did not take this allegation lightly, nor did we shirk our obligation to investigate it vigorously.

Mark Garber is the Portland Tribune editor and executive editor for Pamplin Media Group.