FLINT, Mich. — Dale Kildee has represented the battered city of Flint in Congress since the waning days of President Gerald Ford's administration, without the slightest scandal.
He has been staunchly pro-union and pro-teacher, even when that meant sailing into the wind. Nobody has ever accused him of the slightest breach of ethics. On the contrary, he returns thousands of dollars in unspent congressional office funds to the U.S, Treasury every year.
Though he was scarcely flashy or a major power in Congress, nobody doubted he could continue to be re-elected. But at 82 years old, his health is beginning to fail. Early last summer, he announced it was time to retire.
That should have been that. But suddenly he is at the center of what some are calling a sex scandal — and others say is nothing more than an outrageous, irresponsible, politically motivated attack. Some say it represents a new low for journalism in Michigan.
It began this week, when first the right-wing Washington Times, then media throughout Michigan, reported allegations that the congressman had improperly touched a male teenage cousin of his almost half a century ago.
Mr. Kildee, who has a wife and three children, indignantly denied the allegations. He noted that the man who made them had a history of mental illness. The only "evidence" was the charges made by the alleged victim, Patrick Kildee, and statements from some family members who said they believed him.
Nevertheless, WNEM-TV in Flint broadcast a story about the allegations, which included graphic detail about the alleged touching. Asked about the fairness of this, a Missouri-based lawyer for the station responded with a letter that said: "The First Amendment protects discussions of public officials." The attorney added that Michigan law did the same, and that no actual malice was meant by the station.
This happened even as the woman who broke the story, Washington-area blogger Susan Bradford, seemed to have second thoughts.
"I don't know whether the allegations are true or not and merely reported that they were being made," she said in an email. "I am urging the members of the press and public to withhold judgment until all the facts are in."
Patrick Clawson, a former CNN investigative reporter who lives in Flint, calls this a "media lynching."
"I just cannot believe that any responsible news organization would prepare and hype and broadcast a story based solely on the ravings of what the station itself identifies as a fellow who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and manic depressive disease," he said
While Mr. Clawson says he has known the congressman for many years, they aren't political allies. In fact, Mr. Clawson has run for office as a libertarian.
Nor does Mr. Clawson treat government or institutions with kid gloves. Last year, he uncovered the news that then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm had appeared before media cameras and awarded a tax break to a convicted embezzler and fraud artist whose business was entirely a scam, and who was then led back to jail.
As for the Kildee allegations, he says: "These charges are nothing new. They were being shopped around by the Republican Party more than a year ago." Mr. Clawson said he and another well-known investigative reporter independently checked them out and concluded that "these allegations could not be substantiated in any way, and were most likely false."
"The real story here is how incompetent journalists and partisan political opponents came together to smear a very good and decent man," Mr. Clawson said. Though the congressman is retiring, the leading candidate to succeed him is his nephew, Dan Kildee, a former Genesee County treasurer, whose name may now be blemished.
There seems to be evidence of this. The Flint Journal reported that the detailed broadcast interviews with the accuser and his family were "coordinated by Genesee County Republican Party Chairman Prudy Adam and Christian broadcaster Jon Yinger," a regular GOP campaign contributor.
"Don't get me wrong," Mr. Clawson said. "If I had turned up any credible evidence that Dale Kildee were a pedophile, I'd have hung him or anyone out to dry. But there wasn't anything there. What I do know is that if I tried to broadcast this at CNN or NBC, I would have been kicked out and fired."
Perhaps the worst thing about allegations of this kind, he added, is that once they are given wide media coverage, it is impossible to erase them from the public mind, fair or not.
"Journalistic standards have changed over the years, and I am afraid for the worse," Mr. Clawson said.
In this case, it's hard not to agree.
Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org