Jerry Brady's newspaper has created a stir before. So when Brady, the Democratic candidate for governor, took some heat from Republican candidate Butch Otter over some old columns from the Idaho Falls Post Register, he didn't seem fazed.
But Brady hasn't always been so certain about his newspaper's efforts. In fact, staff at the eastern Idaho daily are still reeling over an episode that made them wonder just how much of a politician Brady had become.
In 2005, the Post Register covered a story that would stir up that Mormon-dominated community like few others. They'd discovered that the Boy Scouts of America and its local Grand Teton Council had suppressed court records showing that a pedophile caught at a local scout camp in 1997 had had dozens of victims. The local scout leaders, the Post Register found, knew about his problems, and had been warned about him, but hired him again anyway. The pedophile, the newspaper found, had confessed his problem to his bishop, and had been to a church counseling program for sex abuser treatment.
So began one of the more controversial stories in the Post Register's recent history. In February 2005, the paper began a six-day series, called "Scouts' Honor." The devastating stories detail the problems that Boy Scouts in the region had with Brad Stowell, a deeply troubled scout leader who apparently charmed his way out of scrutiny and out of trouble again and again. The articles also detailed the extent to which Scout leaders protected and ultimately buried the truth about Stowell.
To say that the series made life difficult for the newspaper staff is an understatement. Reporters on the story were targeted by community leaders, who took out ads criticizing the Post Register's coverage and the people who made it happen.
"It was the kind of story we knew could be fairly costly for us," said Dean Miller, who has been the managing editor of the Post Register since 1995, in an interview with BW.
Through all this, the staff managed to hang tough and publish a story that ultimately garnered them many awards. Reporter Peter Zuckerman picked up the Livingston Award for the category of local reporting. The prize recognizes the country's best under-35 journalists. The newspaper also picked up recognition from the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, and the Scripps Howard First Amendment Prize.
But the newspaper staff felt like they got a slap in the face on September 23, 2005, when Brady, who had already announced he would run for governor this year, published an open letter in his own paper that led with a quote from Will Rogers: "The only problem with the Boy Scouts is there aren't enough of them."
Announcing that the controversy over the news stories had created a "rift" in the community that concerned both him and his wife Rickie, Brady offered an olive branch: "We regret the entire situation so deeply, but most of all, we regret any negativity that might be associated with the great Boy Scouts organization."
Listing the many contributions of local scout operations, Brady concluded that "the entire community should support the scouts."
Miller, who woke up and saw the letter in his own paper like any other reader, told BW he had two reactions: "Shock," Miller said, "and a fair amount of anger."
In an essay in the Nieman Foundation's summer 2006 newsletter Miller wrote that, "Religion, 'big' money, and the conservative movement's rabid protection of local scout leaders had gotten to our boss."
"Now," Miller wrote, "the newsroom was really on its own."
Those people in the community who disliked the Post Register's coverage seized upon Brady's letter, Miller said.
"That ad was used against me, and us," Miller told BW. "It was sort of shaken under our nose."
The situation took on some irony during this fall's campaign season when Brady, along with other Idaho Democrats, used the seamy scandal involving Republican Congressman Mark Foley to attack GOP politicians like Otter, Idaho's First District Congressman and U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson from the Second District. In one news release Brady called upon Otter to demand the resignation of House Speaker Dennis Hastert for the "cover-up of a sexual predator in the U.S. Capitol."
"He is either with the Foley cover-up, or against it. There is no middle ground," said Brady.
Brady told BW his attacks on Otter over Foley are consistent with his actions regarding the Boy Scouts and his newspaper.
"My newspaper was pursuing pedophelia. In the best tradition of investigative journalism, it found something that the public needed to know," Brady said.
But as coverage continued, Brady developed another reaction.
"I personally thought the series had gone on for too long. It went on and on and on," Brady said. "It created the impression that the whole of scouting was being condemned."
"The only thing I was trying to say was, as a candidate, 'I want you to know you're going to have a governor who, notwithstanding the error of this one person and an institutional cover-up, that I have the highest respect for our scouts. They're important to our young people and they should continue."
The situation highlights why newspapering politicians are scarce, said Bob Giles, the curator of Harvard's Nieman Foundation.
"It's very unusual," Giles said. "It creates a real conflict of interest for the news staff, among other things," Giles said.
Brady said he wasn't surprised at Otter's attempt to link him with old columns. But doing so, he said, confuses the job he had as publisher (and now president) and as a candidate for office.
"Did I tell them to go easy? Did I tell them to shade the story? No," he added. The ad commenting on the Boy Scouts, Brady said, "was just kind of a gesture."
Miller said he was loath to second-guess Brady's motives. He said that at the time, he did confront Brady, who he said has given him "a lot of important opportunities." Brady, he said, was respectful.
"I can't pretend to understand the pressures that he was under," Miller said. "It's hard to know if it's a defining moment, or just a moment."