Months ago, several major media outlets learned about troubling e-mails Rep. Mark Foley had sent to former pages — but they didn't feel they had enough information to go public with the story. Brian Ross of ABC News got the same information back in August — but he found a way to crack the scandal open.
Reporters and editors at Florida's St. Petersburg Times, The Miami Herald and the Fox News Channel all say they obtained e-mails that seemed to be between Rep. Mark Foley and a former congressional page — but that they didn't have enough to go public with the story.
The reporters sought more information.
"We verified the accuracy of the email we had," says Neil Brown, executive editor of the St Petersburg Times. "We also spoke with congressman Foley and spoke with the boy's parents. Congressman Foley told us we had misinterpreted it — and in fact maybe a page had misinterpreted it."
And there it largely stood for nearly a year.
In August, however, ABC News got 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.
"These are emails that were unusual for a 52-year-old man to be sending to a high school junior," he says, referring to the personal nature of the exchanges — and requests for a photo.
But ABC wasn't able to confirm the e-mails with the former pages — so Ross took them to Foley's aides.
Foley's press secretary verified the e-mails. But he said the notes were harmless, Ross says, that "this is just a case of the congressman — you don't know Mark — he's just overly friendly — nothing wrong with these things at all."
The message they got, Ross says, was that "others have looked at these — and there's no story here."
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: whether to run the story 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 found a way to crack open the story last Thursday.
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. She read off some of what they had accumulated.
"His former chief of staff called back 20 minutes later and said, 'the congressman is going to resign,'" Ross says, "and we want to make a deal with you."
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.
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.