Stop blaming the Des Moines Register. They handled this story well

The Des Moines Register has become the target of some misdirected anger since last week’s detailed report on sexual misconduct ended Nate Boulton’s gubernatorial campaign in less than 24 hours.

Disappointed Democrats should stop blaming journalists for a gifted politician’s missteps. Brianne Pfannenstiel and her colleagues handled this story professionally.

THE REGISTER DIDN’T “SIT ON” A NEWSWORTHY STORY

Rumors about a Des Moines Register investigation of Boulton have circulated widely in central Iowa political circles since December. Why did the newspaper publish such an explosive story less than two weeks before the June 5 primary?

The answer is hiding in plain sight. Of the three women who recounted non-consensual touching by Boulton–accounts he did not dispute–two were Republicans talking about events from approximately fifteen years ago. The Democrat who described an incident in November 2015 approached the Register only this month.

[Sharon] Wegner said she considered coming forward for months but hoped the allegations would come out without her participation. She said she was swayed, in part, by news that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman — a professed champion of women’s rights — resigned after four women with whom he was romantically involved accused him of physically assaulting them.

Boulton’s representatives told some concerned voters this spring that a handful of Republicans were spreading disinformation. Although I wasn’t investigating this story, I got a firsthand look at the damage control when a friend asked campaign staff about the issue at the Third District Democratic convention in April. After assuring my friend there was nothing to the rumors, a staffer approached me and named two Republican women who supposedly were lying about Boulton for political gain. (Neither was Jessica Millage, the former law school contemporary who spoke to the Register on the record.)

It was entirely reasonable not to run this story until the reporter had at least one relatively recent account of misconduct that didn’t come from a Republican source. The revelations would have been much less credible otherwise. Only Boulton knew how many women were potential sources for this kind of article. He gambled that no Democrats would disclose their experiences. It turned out to be a bad bet.

NO PLOT TO BOOST REPUBLICANS OR FRED HUBBELL

Did Iowa’s leading newspaper just get used by Republicans hoping to take down a rising star? No. As mentioned above, the Register didn’t run the story based solely on GOP sources. Political reporters waited until they had a Democratic alleged victim and a Democratic corroborating witness on the record.

Anyway, Republicans would have benefited from the expose appearing after the primary, especially if Boulton had received enough support on June 5 to keep all contenders below 35 percent. As things stand, Boulton’s exit may spur voters to consolidate around someone else, giving the Democratic nominee more legitimacy going into the general election against Governor Kim Reynolds.

I’ve seen some offer an alternate conspiracy theory: the Register took down Boulton to maximize the impact of the newspaper’s Fred Hubbell endorsement a few days later. But at a large newspaper, reporting staff don’t coordinate their work with the editorial board. The Register has typically endorsed candidates at the top of the ticket in the Sunday paper nine days before the election. The editors have long leaned toward relatively experienced contenders, rather than fresh faces who deliver inspiring speeches.

In any case, the Register’s endorsement isn’t a decisive or even a significant factor in Hubbell’s front-runner status. He is leading the field and favored to win the nomination largely because his campaign has spent an unprecedented amount of money before the primary.

FAIRNESS AND TRANSPARENCY

Last week, the Register took the unusual step of publishing the full transcript of Boulton’s meeting with newspaper staff to discuss the allegations. Not only did they give the accused candidate several chances to confirm or deny the events in question, they also allowed readers to hear his unedited explanation and case for staying in the governor’s race.

I understand why some Democrats wish this story had never come out, or had emerged months ago, when there was more time for rival candidates to build up support and name recognition. The stakes are high in this election. Perhaps someone at the Register might consider writing a column about the editorial decisions related to the Boulton investigation, to address questions about the timing. Regardless, available evidence suggests Pfannenstiel and others who contributed to this story did a difficult job well.

Probably no one has spent more time than I have critiquing Iowa political reporting, and specifically the Des Moines Register’s coverage (see here, here, here, here, or here for a few of many examples). If I thought the newspaper didn’t approach this story responsibly, I wouldn’t hesitate to say so.

P.S.– I don’t want to hear a word blaming sexual harassment victims for not speaking out sooner. Talking about #MeToo experiences can be upsetting, even in private with friends. Becoming part of a major news story about a popular figure cannot be an easy decision. As a wise friend commented last week on Facebook, “If you’re publicly questioning the timing of the Boulton allegations or the motives of the accusers, you are part of the reason why women hesitate to come forward.”

  • The Register's timing is not a concern.

    I have not been among those questioning the *Register’s* timing in bringing this issue to the public’s attention.

    However, I do have two contrarian concerns which I am certain will be immediately shot down with bile and vitriol.

    1. If everything is “assault,” than nothing is “assault.”

    Like highlighting every word of your college textbook, using the word “assault” to describe any act ranging from a moment of thoughtless, beery boorishness to directly coercing others or committing violence against them dilutes its impact, and its meaning. I refer more to public and social media discussion around the Register’s reporting on Boulton than the reporting itself.

    One result of this lack of thoughtful precision is the not entirely accurate conflation of Boulton’s reported past behaviors with those of Bill Dix, former State Senator ousted for behaviors directly related to, in proximity of, and clearly compromising the integrity of the Capital and those who serve within it. There are some clear differences in degree and of kind between the two cases which have been ignored if not outright denied in the rush to purify the Democratic gubernatorial nomination race.

    2. While I agree, from a purely personal and emotional standpoint, that those bringing incidents to light like those reported by the Register are truly brave and should be heeded, it is possible, perhaps even preferable, to “believe the women” while looking at context, setting, additional information and considerations as well when deciding how to react, and what to do in response.

    I am content with Boulton’s decision to leave the race for Governor, although it leaves those who may have voted for him early or absentee somewhat disenfranchised. Short of additional information or evidence coming to light that would cast a more immediate and proximate gloom over Boulton’s Legislative performance, I am not entirely convinced he should be pressured into leaving his constituents in the 16th district disenfranchised as well.

    There is an argument to be made that purging him from the Senate at this time, a la Senator Al Franken of Minnesota, is allowing him the easy way out. Facing a Senate investigation may be the best way to further cleanse that body of any residual cloud left behind by the Bill Dix incident, and give his own constituents a fairer opportunity to decide his political fate.

    Whether or not the incidents reported in the Register are permanent deal-breakers or can be taken as a few points of data among many is a choice the voters of his district are perfectly capable and entitled to make.

    • No vitriol here

      Your thoughts are interesting and thank you for sharing them. Purely from a selfish point of view, I wish there were good shorthand words for different kinds and levels of sexual aggression and assault because I really don’t enjoy having to read the details to get some idea of what happened.

    • technically

      Non-consensual touching is assault or battery. It may not be aggravated assault or assault with intent to cause injury. But people have been charged with battery or assault after spitting on someone or touching their arm or leg.

      Since he hasn’t resigned his Iowa Senate seat, Senator Janet Petersen should follow through with a full independent investigation.

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