Journalism in the Public Interest

Second Thoughts on Sex and Politics

The resignation of Oregon Congressman David Wu provides a compelling argument for why news organizations should aggressively pursue allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct—even old ones.


The resignation of Rep. David Wu may seem like little more than a blip in the year's cavalcade of sexual misconduct by elected officials, from all-male tickle parties and crotch sexting to craigslist trawling. And the swift departure of this Oregon congressman, who said a recent sexual encounter with a friend's teenage daughter was "consensual," assures his name will fade as quickly as last week's debt reduction plan.

But the Wu story, which has been followed closely by few outside the Northwest, deserves more attention. In fact, it is among the most compelling arguments for why news organizations should aggressively pursue allegations of sexual misconduct, even when they seem like ancient history.

I am a reluctant convert to the value of sex as an investigative subject. In the late 1980s, shortly after Gary Hart's infamous invitation to "follow me," led to revelations about his extra-marital canoodling aboard the good ship Monkey Business, I was asked by an editor in the New York Times Washington bureau to look into a rumor that Vice President George H. W. Bush had fathered a child out of wedlock. I refused, telling my boss that "I didn't become a journalist to peer into people's bedrooms."

A few years later, a thinly sourced version of the story surfaced in the New York Post. Bush, by then president, brushed it off. "I'm not going to take any sleazy questions like that," he bristled. "I'm not going to respond other than to say it's a lie."

Quaintly, a denial from the president put the story to rest.

A few years later, I was in Arkansas for the New York Times to interview Judge David Hale, a peripheral figure in the Clintons' Whitewater land dealings. Jeff Gerth and I repeatedly pressed Hale for details on the couple's feckless attempt to create a vacation wonderland in the Ozarks. Mystified, Hale asked Gerth, who is now a ProPublica reporter, why we weren't more interested in Clinton's sex life. Jeff explained that we were from the New York Times and didn't do sex investigations.

Fast forward to Bill Clinton's second term, and we were all galloping after the Monica Lewinsky story which, typically, had been broken by our competitors. One weekend I went to visit my brother, a lawyer who respected the sober journalism practiced by the Times. We stopped in a supermarket and I bought a copy of the National Enquirer. "You read this?” he asked incredulously. "Yes, ‘' I replied. "They've had a lot of stuff first on Monica." Thumbing through the issue, I pointed to an article about a stained blue dress. "Who knows?” I said. "This might even be true."

In 2002, I joined the Oregonian in Portland, Ore., as a managing editor. Within a year, I was part of the management team that bungled one of the most significant sex scandals one could imagine: the story of how a former governor and Carter-administration Cabinet secretary had preyed on a teenage girl and covered up his misconduct. Neil Goldschmidt was the golden boy of Oregon politics, a kingmaker with the darkest secret imaginable. We had a plausible tip on the story but failed to follow up, allowing a competitor, Willamette Week, to break the story and win a Pulitzer Prize.

It marked the second time in modern history that the Oregonian had failed on a big sex story. Earlier, the paper had known about and failed to fully investigate on Sen. Robert Packwood's habit of making unwanted sexual advances. One of his victims had been a reporter in the Oregonian's Washington bureau. The story appeared first in the Washington Post, embarrassing the hometown paper.

In the wake of the Goldschmidt story, I pushed the Oregonian's reporters and editors to run to ground every tip relating to sexual misconduct by a public official.

Our attention quickly turned to David Wu, who was running for re-election in 2004. Wu, a Taiwanese immigrant and lawyer, was an awkward man. Years earlier, the paper had been tipped that he had sexually accosted his ex-girlfriend while a student at Stanford in the mid-‘70s. Efforts to confirm the story had been unsuccessful.

We assigned three reporters to try again. The woman at the center of the case politely but adamantly refused to cooperate, saying she had long ago made her peace with whatever had happened. No charges had ever been filed. There was no paper trail of any kind.

But over several months, reporters Laura Gunderson, Dave Hogan and Jeff Kosseff improbably tracked down witnesses who were willing to go on the record. They found Leah Kaplan, an 82-year-old former therapist at Stanford who had counseled the woman and was suffering from a fatal illness. Kaplan, still angered by the incident, breached patient confidentiality and said that she had pressed Stanford officials to take disciplinary action against Wu. She said they declined to ruin the record of a promising young man who, at the time, was hoping to attend medical school.

Kaplan's statements were intriguing, but not sufficient. We pressed the reporters to find the campus security officers who responded to complaints of a woman screaming in 1976. Find the cop. He'll remember.

And so they did. Raoul K. Niemeyer, then a patrol commander at Stanford, remembered that Wu had scratches on his face and neck. He said Wu claimed that what had happened was "consensual."

Just a few weeks before the election, we had a story ready for publication. Wu hired a lawyer who ferociously counter-attacked, threatening to sue the Oregonian if any story were published. Neither Wu nor the lawyer would answer questions about the incident, but they contacted Kaplan's family and made it clear they were prepared to hold the dying woman legally accountable for her conduct. Wu's campaign manager said the candidate would never respond to "unsubstantiated allegations."

Top editors at the paper were divided about what to do. It was late in the campaign. The incident was decades old. Could one reasonably call it a "youthful" mistake? Was it fair to put someone's college years under a microscope? The victim was unwilling to come forward. Shouldn't that weigh? And what about the threats from Wu's lawyer?

Ultimately, we decided to publish. We concluded that at least some voters would want to know their congressman had this incident in his past. The morning the story appeared, Wu issued a statement saying: "As a 21-year old, I hurt someone I cared very much about. I take full responsibility for my actions and I am sorry. This single event forever changed my life and the person that I have become."

Wu's opponent hammered away at his character—to no effect. More than 350 readers wrote to criticize the story, and even the paper's ombudsman attacked it, questioning its relevance and reliance on second-hand sources.

Wu went up in the polls, winning re-election easily.

Over the next few months, we heard other stories from other women. None was willing to go on the record. It appeared to us that Wu's aggressive conduct with women may have continued deep into his adulthood. But we were unable to prove it.

The Wu story revived during the 2010 election cycle, when most of his aides quit just after the campaign. Several said his behavior was bizarre. Someone leaked a photo of the congressman in a tiger suit that he had sent aides.

Following the story from New York as an editor at ProPublica, I shrugged. And then came the bombshell disclosure that an 18-year-old woman, daughter of a political supporter, had called Wu's offices and left a voice mail stating that she had been the victim of a coercive sexual encounter with him the previous Thanksgiving.

Oregonian reporters Charles Pope, Janie Har and Beth Slovic broke the story. Once again, Wu initially refused to respond to questions. Once again, the victim declined to participate in the story. Once again, Wu said it was "consensual."

After a few more days of hanging tough, Wu took the advice of Democratic leaders and said he would resign after the debt ceiling debate is resolved. ""The well-being of my children must come before anything else," he said in a statement.

I apologize to the teenager whose distraught call is said to describe a traumatic experience at the hands of a 56-year-old member of Congress. Despite our best efforts, we failed you. Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that sex can be a legitimate arena for investigative reporting. It certainly was in the case of David Wu.

Wu is a drug addict , why should his conduct surprise anyone ...

George Schwarz

July 28, 2011, 2:18 p.m.

One of the biggest problems today is the reluctance of people to go on the record. In part, I think, it’s because we journalists can’t or wont’t protect them. In cases like this, using anonymous sources could make the difference.

And, Stephen, you alone didn’t fail the most recent Wu victim. The other victims who weren’t willing to help over all those years are also culpable.

George Schwarz
publisher, editor
The Amarillo Independent

Thanks, Steve,
A very enlightening account.

James Coghill

July 28, 2011, 4:11 p.m.

While nobody should have their bedroom activities made public there are those who want it to be and are permited to make them public under law. This condition wasn’t true not so long ago. As long as America is held in the grip of sexophrenia public exposure should become the order of the day until the public becomes sick of it and demands that it be stopped and demand that the law be changed.

Not only sex offenses, but many in Congress and leadership positions have used illegal drugs in their past—just weren’t caught!  Same with taking “bribes” from lobbyist or ALEC for their votes.  Most leadership roles come from the wealthy or well-connected in society and their offenses are covered up or bought.  If drugs or sex offenses in their past did not create a felony record for them, why should they be writing and enacting laws affecting the rest of us?

The media has an obligation to advise the public before elections. A free press is the only way to have a free democracy.  It is the voters who are complacent, gullible and fail to realize that elections do have consequences.

“Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that sex can be a legitimate arena for investigative reporting.”

This statement inadvertently reveals the underlying problem with the media’s treatment of sex stories. There is a HUGE difference between consensual sex between two legal adults (which is no one’s business) and a sexual crime. They should not be both lumped together under the banner of “sex scandals” as they so often are.

It’s an important distinction that should not be glossed over, because the obsession with the former often trivializes, excuses, obscures, or covers up for the latter.

Bill Clinton, Anthony Weiner, and David Wu are not on the same level and it’s dangerous to imply they are.

@George Schwarts:  You philosophy troubles me…

I do not see how you can go from admitting that you in the press “can’t or won’t” protect the victims with the result that they are reluctant to come forward directly on to blaming earlier victims for later victims.

We should stay out of people’s personal and private life. What is wrong with consensual sex? Did Wu, Weiner, or Clinton put a gun on some one’s head to have sex?! They chose and decided to have sex and that is that. What is the big deal?

Fred Leonhardt

July 28, 2011, 4:46 p.m.

Engelberg fails to mention that former Oregonian editor Sandy Rowe socialized with Neil Goldschmidt and his wife—she did not with David Wu.  I believe the message from the top was clear if unspoken: don’t mess with Goldschmidt.  As Sally Quinn said on socializing with the Cheneys during the Bush administration, “It’s harder to trash someone you’ve had pasta with the night before.”

Janice Borgwardt

July 28, 2011, 5:08 p.m.

To George Schwarz-

The culpability of the victims is in direct proportion to the culpability of attorneys, also feared by those victimized. Take the dying informant, for example, pinpointed in the story above. Such lawsuits need much harsher scrutiny, or lawyers will increasingly dictate free speech.

So, when was the last time a man was raped by a politician and complained publicly about it? Never? Don’t be so quick to judge the women who don’t come forth, then. Don’t tell me there are no men who have had the same experience and then chose not to come forward. Victims of powerful people have many added reasons to not come forward. Victims are often not protected—by laws, from rumor, innuendo and lies, from payback, from murder, from character annhihilation by police and prosecutors lying to the press through “off the record” salacious statements, from career ruin. From having the people around them interrogated and intimidated.

Fred Leonhardt

July 28, 2011, 5:21 p.m.

OK, Steve, help me out: How does what you once described as “an old cold trail leading nowhere” morph into “a plausible tip?”

Michelle Jackson

July 28, 2011, 6:34 p.m.

Thanks to all the journalists that followed Wu’s history, no matter how hard he tried to cloak his background with “good deeds” and high-level alliances.  Since most violence against women IS committed behind “closed doors”, I think well-reasoned people accept that “peering” into closed rooms - and reporting about what journalists learn -  is sometimes necessary if all parties - especially victims - are to get support (and eventually, justice).

Oh, the irony - Wu has concerns for the “well-being of his own kids”, but he’s clearly been able to overlook the emotional well-being of other people’s kids.  He is sad chapter in Oregon history.

George Schwarz

July 28, 2011, 9:12 p.m.

First, @ ibsteve2u: It’s hard to take you seriously if you can’t even get my name right when it’s in front of your face.

Second, it’s not my “philosophy.” It’s my assessment of the state of the media in general. My outlet will use and protect anonymous sources if I can properly vet them, which means the sources are not anonymous to me. But that makes my website different than many of the “mainstream” outlets and certainly different from the corrupt, corporately owned daily paper in this town.

Third, ibsteve2u, the rest of your comment is incomprehensible.

Fourth, I don’t “blame” the victims for this and as I read the comments agree with Janice Borgwardt about the lawyers.

Fifth, actually this discussion isn’t really about sex and reporting on sex. It’s really about honesty and hypocrisy. Sex between two consenting adults is fine, but if one or both of the parties are acting in contradiction to their public posturing (a married person touting the sanctity of marriage while screwing around, or an anti-gay, pro-family politician in gay trysts), then it’s not about sex, is it.

Finally, I believe the media in general has been too gentle and too easy on targets. I think some public policy decisions would have been different if the big national media had done some real digging and kicked some real ass—like Shrub’s, Cheney’s and Rummy’s. And I beg the national media with the resources to dig should do some real digging on Rick Perry.

George Schwarz
publisher, editor
The Amarillo Independent

Randy Thompson

July 29, 2011, 1 a.m.

I find it difficult that the anyone at the Oregonian could be objective about David Wu or his behavior.  In 2000 Wu made waves by not supporting pro free trade legislation for the People’s Republic of China.  This primarily because of his heritage a a Taiwanese Chinese and some reservations about the PRC’s view of trade being one sided.
This infuriated the overally “free trade” Oregonian to no end.
  As for the sex scandal, we lack any real sense if a sexual assault occurred or if Wu’s strange behavior lead to a bad series of judgements. Depression and lack of judgement by two people—Wu and his “friend” led to recriminations.  Finally, Neil Goldschmidt engaged in behavior that could have led to a statutory rape charge and the fact that this led to his decision not to run for a second term as Governor is something that was in retrospect hidden in plain sight for a decade before the Willamette Week had the balls to publish it.  The Oregonian’s handwringing over it is so disingenous.

@George Schwarz:

First, I apologize for my misspelling of your name

Second, it is hard to see how your statements (and I quote):

“And, Stephen, you alone didn’t fail the most recent Wu victim.  The other victims who weren’t willing to help over all those years are also culpable.”

can be construed as anything other than blaming the later victims upon the earlier victims given that “culpable” is an adjective meaning “deserving blame or censure; blameworthy”.

Third, I didn’t do you the favor of misspelling your name this time.  Now when somebody does a web search for “George Schwarz”, they’ll likely find several instances of “And, Stephen, you alone didn’t fail the most recent Wu victim.  The other victims who weren’t willing to help over all those years are also culpable.” peeking out at them from their Google results.

Thanks for the account, Stephen. This has been said already but it is very enlightening and helpful to me as a young journalist.

It’s okay. The average thinking American is quite used to being let down by the liberal media.

Why does the media refuse to keep the good Senator from Louisana out of the spotlight! He admitted to violating both the law and the rules of the Senate as well as the trust of his family when he solicited madams from the Senate floor and also made use of their services! Congressmann Weiner did not violate any laws and was only guilty of stupidity,something that most elected officials could be guilty of but was thrown under the bus because he actually spoke out for we,the people!

“But the Wu story, which has been followed closely by few outside the Northwest, deserves more attention.” - What is your basis for saying “which has been followed closely by few outside the Northwest?” I have been following it but have no idea how many other non-NWers have.

The article promises a reason to probe sex lives, but doesn’t deliver. Sure, it’s clear that some media outlets were losing face over others scooping sex scandals, but that’s not a reason to cover it. And yes, shedding light on scandals can (sometimes) help victims or potential victims to find justice, resolution or legitimacy in the face of attacks by powerful people, but that case isn’t made here, and is only alluded to briefly.

Am I missing something?

The reluctance of victims to come forward may be from seeing how influential people manage to use the media to attack them. We saw this with the Clinton affairs where his media allies went after the women who dared to speak up.

Interesting article, but it seems as though there are several themes coursing through it. One is getting beaten by competitors on sex stories. That is a red herring if the judgment is that the stories are not worthy stories in the first place. The second theme is that they are worthy stories that were overlooked because of prudishness. But…are they? It seems to me that sex scandals per se are not necessarily newsworthy. (I used to work at a paper that also shunned stories that appeared to violate privacy considerations for now apparent reason other than salaciousness.) When possible criminal activity or abuse of office are involved, I grant that a this is newsworthy. Pecadillos, cheating, strange personal habits—I don’t want to know! That makes Wu a story, yes, but arguably not Gary Hart.

If it were up to me, the only time the media would cover the sex lives of politicians or anybody else is:

1)  If a crime - under-aged victim, for instance - were involved

2)  If coercion through exerting the influence of office or position upon a subordinate was involved

3)  If the politician or other public figure’s significant other both did not know and cared (and yep, I’d ask that person’s spouse…if they’re willing to go behind their spouse’s back and so betray them, then they’d certainly do the same to the public or the shareholders)

4)  If they’re running around spreading HIV

5)  If the behavior contradicted the public assertions and political positions of the public figure

#5, of course, would likely predominantly involve Republicans and religious leaders.

Any other time, I don’t care and in fact don’t consider their behavior to be any of my business.

I like your points 1-5 very much. They should be adopted by newspapers everywhere! I would quibble with #3, however. I don’t think betraying one’s spouse and betraying the public’s trust have anything to do with one another. A person can be a very lousy partner and an excellent political leader or businessperson. In fact, I cannot think of too many U.S. presidents whom I respect who did not cheat on their spouses. And who knows whether their wives *actually* minded, even if they said they did. When a reporter asks that question, it becomes political. Reporters cannot be pscyhotherapists!

@AnneK: why I said I’d ask the individual’s spouse.

Me, I happen to think that once an individual breaches trust with their spouse then they are compromised because of the opportunity for blackmail.  In fact, I’m not so sure that isn’t the game the right plays to keep their Republicans marching in goosestep (and/or to recruit “Blue Dog” Democrats).  I.e., compromise them and then blackmail them, and they’ll do whatever you want no matter how bad it is for America and the American people (but maybe I’m granting them an undue out in the form of a motive for inflicting pain upon America that merits at least some sympathy).

And secondly there is the cascade effect…a lot of individuals have a wall up against doing the wrong thing, but if it is breached just once then every other brick - sooner or later - comes tumbling down.

As an example, that is why I believe the Republicans are so far gone…after they had sided with the OPEC countries and Big Oil against the American people and the United States of America after the ‘73 oil embargo and defeated all efforts at legislating conservation and funding serious alternative energy research, I believe that “flood-up/trickle-down” economics, deregulation, and inequitable free trade - even though the negative consequences of each was easily foreseeable - came a lot easier to both the individual Republicans and their party.

Now, they’ve internally dehumanized 99% of the American people by lumping them into either “labor” or “entitlement spending”.

For those reasons, I included #3…but I would leave the individual an “out”:  If the individual in question came clean with their spouse, I’d let them off the hook and squash the story, for that act dramatically reduces the effectiveness of a blackmail attempt.

Regarding my last paragraph:  I would hope that the individual would immediately comprehend that I would still be watching them…after all, I had discovered their original affair(s).  But some of them…you’d probably have to tell them that.

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