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Ralston Reports

How and why we did our Horsford story

Steven Horsford, former Representative for Nevada's 4th, during an interview on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

A few days ago, I received an email from someone I did not know pointing to the Twitter page of an anonymous woman who claimed to be Rep. Steven Horsford’s past mistress.

I raised an eyebrow, but didn’t think much of it because 1. Anyone can say anything on the internet where anonymity is granted and often abused. 2. I was immersed in 5,000 other things.

Then, on Friday, we learned the woman was doing a podcast. After a reporter listened, we learned that the relationship she described was consensual and in the past, and she never worked for Horsford. We decided that what we knew was not worth a story. If we could find out her identity and if there was more to it than just those facts, perhaps we would pursue it.

Then, Friday evening at 10:30, the Review-Journal posted a story about the affair, complete with an interview with the congressman and identifying the woman, Gabriela Linder. I went to bed still not sure what to do. Here’s why:

I have always believed that media outlets should give public figures a zone of privacy. We can disagree on where it stops and where it begins, but they deserve that. In the 24/7 digital world, that zone has become smaller and smaller. I get that.

I don’t believe that Politician X having an extramarital affair is ipso facto a news story. I am sure many people disagree with me on this, including, I think, members of my own staff. We live in a world of grays, and this surely is one.

Such relationships become newsworthy if journalists can draw a clear nexus between the politician’s public life and private behavior. Did the elected official portray himself or herself as a person of moral rectitude? If so, that kind of hypocrisy should be exposed. Did the elected official have power over the person he or she is having the affair with — as an employee, or lobbyist, for instance? If so, that is an even more serious transgression. Were taxpayer resources used to facilitate or cover up the relationship? This is not even a close call.

So when we talked Saturday morning about whether to do the story, I laid out these contours for the staff and asked whether the elements were there in the Horsford story. I was adamant that just because the RJ — with other outlets soon to follow — had done the story, we would not be herded into doing one.

As always in these cases, I have to make the decision. But I always insist on getting feedback from the remarkable journalists on Team Indy. They sometimes see things I do not see.

I was skeptical at first. But two facts and one in particular persuaded me it was a story. The latter is this:

Horsford is running for office as a “devoted family man,” as he touts himself on his website to burnish his image. He even invokes his wife as part of the “strong family” he has built. But he has been having an on again and off again affair for 10 years and is thus presenting, to some extent, a facade to the public. He is asking for votes under false pretenses.

I judge not, and maybe his family is strong now, but he hardly has been a “devoted family man” throughout his public career. Voters deserve to know that.

Secondly, Horsford was noticeably muted during scandals involving two of his colleagues, including one that helped him ascend to Congress for the second time. Horsford was in state Senate leadership during a time that it was pretty widely known that fellow Democratic Sen. Mark Manendo was abusing his power with women at the Legislature. Horsford, unlike Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford, never lifted a finger or said anything.

Then, during Ruben Kihuen’s fall from grace, Horsford said very little to criticize the man whose departure from Congress opened the seat Horsford won back in 2018. What Kihuen did was much different — from what we know, at least. He made sexual advances to a number of women over whom he had power.

The question must be asked: Was Horsford muzzled by his own secret? Was his private behavior a reason for his public evasions?

Other arguments, not quite as resonant with me, could be made, too, that this is a story that should be told. When the affair started, Linder was an intern in Sen. Harry Reid’s office. She did not work for Horsford, but he was one of the most powerful men in the state and surely could have called fellow Democrat Reid to ask that she be fired. Horsford had tangential power over her.

It’s also true that we may not yet know all of the relevant facts here. We still need to know whether any public money was used to carry on (or cover up) the affair or if there is more to this than what either has said — and so far Horsford has not said much of anything.

These stories are not easy, and I hate that some media outlets are doing and will do them in breathless ways with clickbait headlines. I am also not surprised by the frothing social media traffic, including from the irony-challenged Republicans who seem to forget who they support at 1600 Pennsylvania, or the press releases from his opponents jockeying for room in a crowded primary.

Candidates will do what they will do; partisan hacks will do what they will do.

But I have found over the years that sexual dalliances are not partisan. And neither is our coverage of them — we aggressively pursued the Kihuen story after BuzzFeed broke the news of an improper advance and we found a pattern of conduct. And we covered the Manendo mess, another case of a man who serially abused his power over women in Carson City, more deeply than any other news organization.

It will always be our goal in covering any controversial story to give readers insight into our decision-making process. That is what I have tried to do here. I know some may disagree.

As always, we welcome your feedback. My email is [email protected]

Updated at 8:53 to reflect that Ruben Kihuen left Congress after his term; he did not resign.

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