|Whose Abuse of Power: The Seattle Times and Brock Adams
University of Missouri—Columbia
On March 1, 1992, Brock Adams, Washington state’s liberal Democratic senator, abandoned his U.S. Senate re-election campaign. Adams quit, he said, because he had been destroyed by “hypothetical comments by hypothetical people.”
The “hypothetical people” involved were actually eight women who had been quoted in the Sunday, March 1 edition of the Seattle Times. In that page-one story, the women claimed to have been the victims of Adams’ sexual harassment for most of his twenty-year career that included a term in President Carter’s cabinet. The Times had published their accounts after three years of digging. The revelations came weeks into a re-election campaign that Adams was likely to win.
While the story itself was controversial, the Times’ reporting methods were equally unorthodox: the paper had allowed the women to remain anonymous in its accounts. The editors reached this decision only after serious and protracted discussions.
Political reporter David Boardman began work on the story in 1988 when rumors of Adams’ behavior surfaced. At that time, one of the women, Kari Tupper, former Congressional aide and Adams’ family friend, claimed Adams had first drugged and then molested her. The Washington D.C. police, where the complaint was filed, exonerated Adams. Boardman wrote a single story about the allegations.
During the next three years, Boardman says, he and other reporters at the Times began receiving calls and tips that other women had encountered similar experiences with Adams. Slowly, the Times began to build a file on Adams, often checking with the women, their friends and acquaintances, for any possible way to verify situations that had always occurred in private. No reporter worked full time on the story, and the paper was unable to convince anyone other than Tupper to go on the record.
By mid-1990, the list of Adams’ accusers had grown to eight. Even though the women themselves remained anonymous, the Times had checked their stories in every way it could. Most of the women did not know each other; those who were acquainted were unaware that others were making similar charges. All were respected members of the community, and most were active in state and city politics. Furthermore, their accounts revealed a pattern. Boardman believed them.
However, the paper and its staff were reluctant to publish the charges without sources willing to go on the record. Beginning in mid-1990, when the actual reporting on the case began to consume more staff time, the paper tried to convince the women to go on the record. Eventually, seven of the eight women signed a statement swearing that what they were saying was true and acknowledging that they would be asked to testify openly in court if Adams sued the newspaper.
The Times published its story on March 1. While only Tupper was named in the story, the Times provided thumbnail sketches of the others, including their job titles, employment histories, or work relationships to Adams. Boardman has stated that, based on what the newspaper printed, it was impossible for Adams not to have known the specific identities of his accusers even without the names.
In a front-page column explaining why the paper had printed the story, Executive Editor Michael R. Fancher said the women were credible people with no reason to lie about Adams. The editorial continued: “The alleged incidents described were not consensual love affairs or ‘womanizing,’ but abuses of power and of women. As such, they raise questions about Adams’ character, both personal and political, that we believe voters should have an opportunity to evaluate.”
The Times’ use of anonymous sources in the Adams story has been widely discussed. Some have suggested that the paper should have held the story until it had sources willing to go on the record, regardless of the impending election. Others saw the publication as the inevitable outcome of so much expenditure of the Times resources. Thomas L. Shaffer, a visiting professor of law at Boston College of Law, represented this view when he wrote:
A news organization’s sitting on three years of diligent investigation, by four creative news people, is like the leaders of a fully equipped army of millions wondering if the army should go to war. A clear-eyed placer of bets will give you odds on publication in the one case, war in the other. This is not to accuse the Times people of cynicism but only to notice that the real decision in the Adams case was made in 1988, when the Times decided to significantly invest in the story.
1. At what point should the Times have considered running a story about the allegations?
(a) When one other victim had a similar story to Tupper’s?
(b) When multiple victims had a similar story to Tupper’s?
(c) Not at all?
2. Adams was informed of the story before it went to press. He refused to comment. Do you include that in your report?
1. In the neighboring state of Oregon, Senator Bob Packwood was accused of a pattern of sexual harassment over his career, a story that broke late in 1992. Yet the Portland Oregonian did not run the story until after the November 1992 election. Did the Oregonian show too much restraint? Did the Times show too little?
2. Also in Seattle, a judge committed suicide on the eve before a story ran in the rival Seattle Post-Intelligencer accusing him of sexual misconduct with several boys who came before his court. As the rumors circulated during the months-long investigation by the paper, he had announced that he was not seeking re-election and was moving out of town. The newspaper ran the story anyway. When the issue is abuse of power, is the story moot when the accused is no longer powerful? If Adams had decided to retire before the stories ran, does that kill the story or do you run it anyway?
3. Critique the quote by Shaffer that the real decision occurred when the newspaper decided to pursue the story in 1988.
4. What should a news organization’s policy be about using
(a) anonymous sources?
(c) off-the-record information?
1. The Times worked on the story for three years. During that time did it have a responsibility to Adams’ associates to tell what was suspected? What is the role of the newspaper in informing its readership about alleged but not convicted sexual offenders?
2. What rights does the accused have in cases such as this?
3. Fancher claims in his front-page editorial that the allegations about Adams went beyond “womanizing” and spoke to the issues of his personal and political character. Do you agree or disagree? Why?
4. Is the media a proper institution to judge character?
5. On issues such as sexual harassment, can the media afford to be objective?