MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Several major media outlets knew many months ago about some of the e-mails that Congressman sent to former pages but they did not feel they had enough information to go with the story. Brian Ross of ABC News got the same information back in August and he found a way to get the news out.
NPR's David Folkenflik reports.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: So say you're a news editor and your reporters tell you of a 16-year-old who's flipping out over the personal e-mails sent to him by a congressman.
Mr. NEIL BROWN (The St. Petersburg Times): And they were e-mails not at all sexually explicit. They were frankly rather ambiguous.
FOLKENFLIK: That's Neil Brown, executive editor of The St. Petersburg Times. Last November, his reporters obtained the e-mails that seemed to be between Mark Foley, then a Republican congressman from Florida, and a former congressional page.
Mr. BROWN: The reporters sought more information. We verified the accuracy of the e-mail we had. We also did speak with Congressman Foley. We also spoke with the boy's parents.
Congressman Foley told us we had misinterpreted it, and in fact maybe the page had misinterpreted it. Nothing in our reporting revealed that there had been inappropriate contact or anything sexually explicit, certainly based on what we had.
FOLKENFLIK: And there it largely stood, despite the chafing of the reporters, for nearly a year. The Miami Herald and Fox News Channel also had the e-mails and they also decided not to publish or broadcast stories about them. They all say now they didn't have enough to go on then.
In August, however, ABC News got a hold of the e-mails, too. Once ABC's Brian Ross was done with anniversary specials on Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, his investigative unit turned its attention to Foley. Ross had covered the page sex scandal that snared two congressmen back in 1983, and he read the e-mails a little differently.
Mr. BRIAN ROSS (ABC News): These are e-mails that were unusual for a 52-year-old man to be sending to a high school junior - you know, asking personal questions. Do you work out? Is this person in great shape? What would you like for your birthday? Can you send me a photo of yourself?
FOLKENFLIK: ABC wasn't able to confirm the e-mails with the former pages, so Ross took them to Foley's aides.
Mr. ROSS: The press secretary said yes, those are his e-mails. We know that. But this is just a case of the congressman - you don't know Mark, He's just overly friendly. Nothing's wrong with these things at all. That was his explanation, and he said, you know, others have looked at these and there's no story here.
FOLKENFLIK: A little known Web site posted some of the apparent exchanges, but Ross has said he didn't know about that. So Ross and his bosses were confronting the same choice as editors elsewhere - do you run with it or not?
The answer in this case was still no, not exactly. Viewers didn't see it on ABC's flagship evening newscast. But Ross still did found a way to crack open the story last Thursday.
Mr. ROSS: It wasn't a story that was really big enough to go on World News Tonight, and we did it online. It was a solid story.
FOLKENFLIK: The ensuing posting on ABCNews.com opened the floodgates. Within hours, people who said they were former pages sent Ross explicit instant messages that seemed to show Foley asking them about sex. As Ross recounts it, ABC News producer Maddy Sauer called Foley's office back last Friday.
Mr. ROSS: She must have read, you know, 20 seconds worth of by far not the worst, and the press secretary said I'll get back to you. His former chief of staff called back an hour later and said the congressman is going to resign, and we want to make a deal with you.
FOLKENFLIK: The former aide, Kirk Fordham, confirmed the messages were real, but said Foley would exclusively talk to Ross only if Ross agreed not to post the instant messages. That wasn't even a close call for Ross. The messages went online, and the story roared forth.
(Soundbite of television news program)
Unidentified Man: A Congressional career is in ruins tonight, a politician in disgrace, and a famous -
FOLKENFLIK: The story has dominated the political scene ever since, showing how an old-fashioned media outlet can use its newfangled toys on the Internet to change the rules on how the news is broken.
David Folkenflik, NPR News.