The case of Mississippi governor Kirk Fordice and the "unidentified companion"
By Jim Hanas
JUNE 21, 1999: Here's some news. The media can keep a secret. For a while, anyway.
In November 1996, when Mississippi governor Kirk Fordice was severely injured in an auto accident following a trip to Memphis, it was widely reported that he had been lunching at the Three Oaks Grill in Germantown with a woman, not his wife, who nonetheless remained unidentified in news accounts. Not that news outlets didn't know who she was. Fordice's affair with Memphian Ann G. Creson has been something of an open secret among the press corps ever since. Until last Sunday, that is, when a WMC-TV Channel 5 reporter happened to share a flight with the couple, who were returning from a European vacation, and snapped a shot of them together as they deplaned.
That led to a Monday confrontation between Governor Fordice and Bert Case, a reporter at WLBT-TV in Jackson, Mississippi. In by-now familiar footage, Fordice promises an old-fashioned ass-kicking to anyone who'd care to nose into his personal life after he leaves office next year.
All of this was reported by WMC Tuesday, two days after the picture was taken, once the station had a chance to get independent confirmation of Creson's identity. From there, it hit the wire, picture and all, before circling back to Memphis for an appearance in Thursday's Commercial Appeal, in an Associated Press story about Fordice's confrontation with Case. Even the cutline accompanying the picture didn't directly identify Creson, however, instead calling her "a woman identified by a local television station as Memphian Ann G. Creson."
The mystery of Fordice's "unidentified companion" -- academic in light of Fordice's Friday announcement that he is seeking a divorce from his wife of 44 years in order to wed Creson, whose husband passed away last year -- is that rarest of birds in the media jungle: a story no one wanted to break. Part of that has to do with problems of confirmation. Both Fordice and Creson have steadfastly declined to discuss, let alone confirm, their relationship. And part of it has to do with judgments about what is and isn't newsworthy.
"When the governor stands up and talks about getting a divorce, and is seen in public with someone who he is obviously romantically involved with, that undoubtedly makes it newsworthy," says Commercial Appeal managing editor Henry Stokes. "There just aren't any newsworthiness decisions to make at that point."
But back in 1996, says Stokes, the identity of Fordice's Three Oaks companion "was a related story, but certainly not the whole story as it appears to be today."
"I don't think we did have the name," he says. "When he had the accident, when he was seen at the Three Oaks Grill with apparently the same woman, we might have had some idea who the woman was."
"We knew of Ms. Creson's identity for several years," says Flyer editor Dennis Freeland. "Reporter Phil Campbell called the Cresons' house several times in 1996 and spoke briefly with Mr. Creson. Ultimately we decided that it wasn't newsworthy. Despite what happened subsequently with the Monica Lewinsky story, I still am satisfied that our decision was the correct one. Even politicians deserve some privacy."
Had Fordice's accident occurred in today's post-Lewinsky world, reporting Creson's identity may well have been a no-brainer, particularly given the governor's ties to the religious right. The local media's prolonged silence about it, on the other hand, sounds almost like a story from the good old days heard so commonly during Clinton's administration, about a time when the press kept quiet about JFK's womanizing and FDR's wheelchair.
At the same time, the eventual broken silence sounds decisively Drudge, with even the Associated Press -- and by extension, the CA -- keeping its hands clean by reporting not on the story, but on the fact that the story had been reported.
"I think when the Jackson TV crew confronted the governor and he lashed out at them, the story then became irresistible for TV news," says Freeland. "It had everything: sex, hypocrisy, and an angry governor threating to kick someone's ass. The story just exploded after that video footage came out. I had people asking me last week how the Flyer planned to cover the story. Then Fordice announced he was asking his wife for a divorce, and even the news outlets which had practiced restraint ran with the story."
Sometimes under the guise of media criticism, but still...
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