No regrets here on the Gore story

From the Editor
by: PAUL J. RICHARDS, Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and his wife Tipper Gore (left) announced they were ending their 40-year marriage on June 1. Two days later, the massage therapist told Portland police she planned to take her story to the media.

During the past week, the Portland Tribune has become part of a national discussion - not because of a story we published, but due to one we didn't.

I'm referring, of course, to allegations by a Portland massage therapist against former Vice President Al Gore. The Tribune has received both praise and criticism for our decision not to move forward with a story that ultimately was published in recent editions of the National Enquirer.

Support for our decision has come from journalism experts and even from some commentators who might have every reason to want to see Gore embarrassed. Others - particularly those who assume a left-wing bias in the media - have heaped scorn upon this newspaper for not rushing to publish information from a vague, four-page police report without first substantiating the charges.

We respect people's rights to disagree with our thinking - especially given the very limited factual information gathered from our reporting that we have been able to make public. Nothing said so far has altered my conviction, or the conviction of others involved, that we made the right decision, given the information we had.

For a year, this newspaper investigated an accusation that Gore molested a massage therapist during an Oct. 24, 2006, visit to Portland. In 2007 and 2008, Tribune reporter Nick Budnick spent several months looking into the allegation, which had already been dismissed by police after the woman failed to show for three interviews. He made public-records requests to obtain Portland police reports filed by the woman's lawyer that contained very little information that was usable - and that were released to us months after the incident allegedly occurred.

In 2007, he tracked down the therapist, but she declined to speak. In 2008, she approached the Tribune, but refused to reveal 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 (who has since gone public with her name) and also to get at the question of the story's credibility. Much of the information was 'off the record,' limiting its use.

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. Though it pains us as we watch the media and blog chatter about the issue and our decision, we are still not in a position to publish those facts that helped dissuade us from the story.

In 2007, our choice was either to publish the existence of a thirdhand accusation, with no corroborating evidence or knowledge of the source's identity, or to hold publication until we had found more evidence to determine whether the allegation held water.

In 2008, after further reporting by Budnick and due to the conditions that the massage therapist tried to set in return for her cooperation, our choice was either to publish an ethically compromised story that omitted key facts or not to publish at all.

We don't believe it is a journalist's responsibility to merely report accusations simply because they have been made. Some people - even other journalists - might disagree. But at the Tribune, we remain comfortable with our decisions and recognize that our standards for accusing someone of a serious offense are different from those of a national tabloid.

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. But from a more practical standpoint, as soon as the Enquirer story became public, 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 were 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?

This is an easy question to answer, because we did, in fact, 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 or the woman's friends and acquaintances. 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.

No one other than the two people involved will ever be sure of what actually happened in that hotel room in October 2006. But we want readers to know we did our best to get to the truth of the matter - and we were unable to do so to our satisfaction.

Even now, after all that's been said, we're far happier to be known as the paper that didn't break this story, rather than as the paper that did.

Mark Garber is editor of the Portland Tribune and executive editor of Pamplin Media Group's newspapers.