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Getting a bad Rep?



Unnamed sources. Those are some combustible ingredients sparking a controversy involving The Bakersfield Californian, which examined the relationship between the powerful local congressman and a lobbyist.

The paper, on the front page in its June 25 issue, revealed what had been whispered - that U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas, a Republican, who heads a key health care finance panel, and Deborah Steelman, a health-industry lobbyist, had been involved in an "intensely personnal" relationship, according to Thomas' chief of staff, Cathy Abernathy. Thomas and Steelman are each married to other people, and the paper did not directly go into issue of wether the relationship was sexual.

Abernathy began talking to acquaintances last summer about her boss' relationship with the lobbyist and the effect it could have on Thomas politically as well as on her own career as chief of staff. But Abernathy's comments were not made to veteran Californian reporter Vic Pollard, who investigated and wrote the story. She confided her concerns to others, and it was those sources, requesting anonymity, who repeated her remarks to the reporter.

The "relationship" aspect of the story was based on interviews with unnamed sources, since none of the principals involved would comment. The potential conflict-of-interest angle was gleaned by talking to good- government groups and culling campaign-finance reports.

After the story ran, Abernathy accused Pollard of being "fed lies" and repeating those lies "eagerly, without corroboration and without attribution." She said remarks attributed to her are "complete fabrication." Thomas and Steelman also issued statements, not addressing the relationship question, but denying any conflict of interest.

Executive Editor Mike Jenner knew there would be a backlash. Jenner, in a letter to readers, first explained why he believes that some aspects of a public figure's private life are off-limits. But in this case, the circumstances -- key health-care lawmaker and industry lobbyist -- turned the matter into a "significant public concern." Jenner said the paper looked not only for people to back the relationship rumors but also for those who could dispel them. None of the latter surfaced. "Finally, we found ourselves with a story that we did not feel we could continue to sit on," said Jenner.

Aly Colon, who teaches ethics at the Poynter Institute, said the story is an important one, but worried that anonymous sources leave readers guessing about motivations. "If you had names and can judge where sources were coming from, you could add or detract from the validity of those comments," noted Colon, who added that readers are left to wonder how far the relationship went and this "muddies the water" about an important subject. Colon also said the story could have been done without addressing the "intensely personal" relationship issue at all.

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Title Annotation:The Bakersfield Californian article; U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas
Comment:Getting a bad Rep?(U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas)(The Bakersfield Californian article)
Author:Noack, David
Publication:Editor & Publisher
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 3, 2000
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