BOB GARFIELD: A couple of weeks ago, a blogger named Michael Rogers appeared on the Ed Schultz show, an explicitly liberal syndicated radio program, to talk about what he'd reported on his blog -- the allegation that Idaho Republican Senator Larry Craig is a closeted homosexual. Rogers, who has made a vocation of outing prominent officials he deems hypocritical, pointed to Craig's 100-percent gay-unfriendly voting record to justify the invasion of the senator's personal privacy. Though his previous outings have never been found wrong, Rogers offered only the testimony of four men whom he did not name. This posed a quandary for The Spokane Spokesman-Review, whose circulation covers much of northern Idaho, and how it handled the story speaks volumes about how the digital age has changed the calculus on questions of privacy, discretion and, notably, in this case, journalistic transparency. Steve Smith is the editor of the Spokesman-Review, and he joins us now. Steve, welcome back to On the Media.
STEVE SMITH: Well, thank you very much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I'm going to assume that this particular blog post didn't shock anybody at The Spokesman-Review. There have been unsubstantiated rumors about Senator Craig's sexuality for years, no?
STEVE SMITH: The rumors really go back to 1982, and it's not been a story that we've pursued because there's been no indication that his behavior crosses the line into any sort of illegal activity.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, this time you did write a story. What changed in terms of the story's relevance?
STEVE SMITH: Well, context in something like this is everything, and the story at this point is, in part, assertions of Craig's sexuality, but it's also very much the impact of those assertions and the public buzz developing during a very contentious election season. And where the Foley scandal is so fresh in people's minds, and in our local area, the Jim West scandal is so fresh, it took on a relevance that it might not have had at another time or place.
BOB GARFIELD: It was less than two years ago, I guess, that you were reporting on the sexual indiscretions of West, who was the mayor of Spokane at the time. Briefly tell me about that scandal and how it played out.
STEVE SMITH: Well, that was a case where a public official was involved in inappropriate conduct on two levels -- one, allegations of sexual abuse in his past, 30 or so years ago, and then allegations that he was in present time patrolling the Internet, attempting to engage in sexual encounters with young men. The third leg of that story was the hypocrisy of a closeted gay politician who in public took very homophobic positions. As a collection of elements, there was never any question in our mind that that was a story that required a pursuit on our part.
BOB GARFIELD: So this time around, in the Craig case, was it the third leg of the stool, the question of public hypocrisy, that finally helped you make your decision to run the story? Or was it just the fact that the story was already in play?
STEVE SMITH: That's exactly the point. The fact that it was a story in Idaho, that it was a story in the community and was generating enormous heat in the blogosphere, which we monitor closely, telling us that it was having a material effect on the political climate in Idaho, where Larry Craig is campaigning actively for the Republican gubernatorial candidate, that compelled us in the end to decide that we had to acknowledge the existence of the story and discuss the impact on Idaho politics.
BOB GARFIELD: To me, one of the most interesting aspects of this story was the degree of transparency the Spokesman-Review gave readers about the decision-making process.
STEVE SMITH: We have an ongoing blog called The News is a Conversation. It's part of our transparent newsroom initiative. And we posted online a brief summary of the conundrum that we were facing and asked people to weigh in if they had any thoughts. The next morning, once the decision was made and the story was published -- we do Webcast our morning news meetings -- and we talked about our decision-making process, and then had people weigh in all through the course of the day on two or three different blogs that we run out of the newsroom. And we took about 50 or 60 active comments from readers during the course of about 16 hours.
BOB GARFIELD: What you've just described has a sort of opposing mirrors quality to it. I mean, I guess it's to your credit that you were so transparent, but [SMITH LAUGHS] for one thing, what if you had decided in all of these deliberations that the right move was not to run a story in the print edition of The Spokesman-Review? In effect, by airing the deliberations, you already had run the story. Doesn't that put you in a very vulnerable position in the future if, say, the government or, I don't know, a libel plaintiff is trying to get the records of your news deliberations?
STEVE SMITH: There's no question that it's gray territory. Hosting this particular item, we were careful to discern whether there was a legal liability issue. And I think the distinction that we drew, which is arguable, is that the environment in which we were discussing our decision-making process was the very environment in which this discussion was already taking place. And we were simply joining that conversation in as careful and thoughtful a way as we possibly could. But you're right. Had we chosen then not to produce a story in print, the conversation and the discussion itself certainly would have telegraphed the fact that this story exists to anybody who was tuning in. It's a puzzlement. We're just trying to come to grips with this new environment.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Steve. Once again, thanks so much for joining us.
STEVE SMITH: My pleasure. Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: Steve Smith is the editor of The Spokane Spokesman-Review. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, can a great big dose of reality cure the ailing network that once gave us must-see TV?