By: Joe Strupp
As the so-called “D.C. Madam” case unfolds in the nation’s capital, with alleged prostitution ringleader Jeane Palfrey claiming a list of thousands of prominent clients, Washington-area editors say they are following the story, but remain reluctant to print such a list, were it available, without serious scrutiny.
“You would have to evaluate it to the extent humanly possible and verify it,” said Michael Tackett, Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune. “If one of the names is wrong and you print it, how do you unring that bell for that person?” He said reprinting a list from another news outlet is not an excuse for getting it wrong. “You’ve got to verify it yourself,” he said.
Andrew Alexander, Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers, which serves 17 daily papers, also urged caution when exposing anyone on the list. “It would be a starting point to do additional reporting,” he said about any list the bureau might obtain. “We would have to see who is on the list, we would have to look at matters of fairness, and of accuracy.”
Neither Tackett nor Alexander said they had assigned anyone to find the list or aggressively pursue it. But Alexander said, “we are watching it. We are interested in those on the list.”
The story has gained increased attention in Washington since Friday when ABC News, which has led the story on its Web site, broke the first word of former deputy secretary of state Randall Tobias resigning and revealing he was a client, although claiming for non-sexual services.
Since then, ABC has reported that the list includes “customers who could be potential witnesses” such as “a Bush administration economist, the head of a conservative think tank, a prominent CEO, several lobbyists and a handful of military officials.” The network plans a lengthy report on the story Friday on 20/20, with hints that more names might be revealed.
On Monday, Palfrey was in federal court to face charges of running an illegal prostitution ring. That prompted increased coverage with The Washington Post offering two inside stories on the case and the Los Angeles Times placing it on Page One.
Editors at those papers, and others, said the potential list of clients is not high on their reporting agenda, and if obtained would have to be carefully reviewed before any publication. “We are making no effort to get the list and I am not sure what we would do if it fell in our lap,” said Phil Bennett, managing editor of the Post. “We would have to evaluate it to see what would happen. If there were public officials implicated in this, we would have to figure out their involvement and what it meant.”
But Bennett said the recent developments regarding the resignation of Tobias and Monday’s court appearance have raised interest. “It was a minor curiosity until Friday when it provoked the resignation of a pretty high official,” he said. “I don’t think we really have a handle on where it is going.”
Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times Washington bureau chief, offered a similar caution. “There is a legitimate story here in several ways, but it is not the biggest story of the year,” he said. “If I had a list, I’d look at it and work from it. You have to look at each [name] individually. There is a public figure test.”
Sandy Johnson, D.C. bureau chief for the Associated Press, said the news cooperative has covered the courtroom aspects of the case, but not sought actively to get a list of clients. “We wouldn’t just put out a list without doing some reporting on it,” she said. “You have to start parsing it for names that would matter. There are different levels of names out there.”
Fran Coombs, managing editor of The Washington Times, also urged careful reviews of any names, noting that the Internet can prompt some to push information like this out too soon. “People post things on the Internet without knowing what is true and what is not,” he said. “We would not just print it, we would look at it. You see who is on it and make some calls. Right now, we are just kind of watching the story.”