The Rachel Maddow Show | May 04, 2012
MADDOW: state of Idaho , this rather ominous billboard starts turning up on roads across the state. "Should public television promote the homosexual lifestyle to your children? Think about it." Never put a billboard with a message that provocative that ends with a question mark and has a lot of blank white space on it. This is what happened I think in Idaho Falls . But somewhere in Idaho , somebody answered the question in spray paint in a way the billboard funders probably did not want. "Should public TV promote the homosexual lifestyle to your children? Yes." An unauthorized spray paint addition there. That was 1999 . The man who helped pay for those billboards in Idaho in 1990 is now a national finance co-share of the Mitt Romney for president campaign . His name is Frank VanderSloot . He runs a company called Melaleuca . He's one of the richest men in Idaho , whicfh ends up mattering a lot in Idaho politics. Do you remember when Larry Craig , the Republican senator got caught with the wide stance in that airport bathroom.
LARRY CRAIG (R), FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Let me be clear. I'm not gay. I never have been gay.
MADDOW: Larry Craig emphatically not gay, left the United States Senate any way and was replaced by another Idaho Republican named James Risch . Mr. Risch , at that point, the state's lieutenant governor, rented the private jet of Frank VanderSloot to fly around the state in his successful campaign to replace Larry Craig in the Senate . Mr. VanderSloot comes up a lot in Idaho politics. And now, he's not only a national finance co-chair of the Mitt Romney for president campaign , he's also directly held fund-raisers for Mr. Romney . He has donated to the super PAC supporting Mr. Romney , as well as to the Romney for president campaign . A few years after he helped finance the homosexual lifestyle billboards around Idaho . Mr. VanderSloot also got very, very involved in an award-winning investigative series published by a small Idaho newspaper called " The Post Register ". The series started with a tip about a child molestation case at a local Boy Scout camp. Following that lead, the paper published that Boy Scout officials and Mormon Church officials had been warned about child molesters within local Boy Scout troops. They had known about it and kept them in the organization and ultimately facilitated their further access to kids. It was a brutal and disturbing investigation that, of course, went right at the most powerful pillars of that community. For that reporting, the Scripps Howard Foundation awarded the newspaper their award for distinguished service to the First Amendment . The reporter on the story, a young man named Peter Zuckerman , won the Livingston Award for his reporting on that series. It's a price that recognizes the nation's best journalists under the age of 35. Now, part of the response to that reporting from that little newspaper in Idaho Falls was this -- as you can see, it's sort of typeset to make it look like it was part of the newspaper but this is actually an ad. It was a full page ad run by Frank VanderSloot , now a national finance co-chair of the Mitt Romney campaign . The ad was placed to criticize the newspaper for publishing the story, and it and others like it were published in the newspaper that had aired the series in the first place . This particular version of the ad went on in some length about the fact that the reporter, young Mr. Zuckerman , is gay. It described him as a, quote, "declared homosexual " and also described him as individually biased as a reporter. We covered this story a few months ago, back in February, for a couple of reasons. First, biggest picture here, while there's always been campaign donors and politically influential campaign donors, in this post- Citizens United , we are now in a new phase in American politics where gazillionaires can give unlimited amounts of money to support candidates. And that unlimited spending by people with essentially unlimited resources creates a whole new category of influential, rich person in politics like we've never had before. So, now, in this post- Citizens United world, getting know your candidates in many cases means getting to know your candidates' gazillionaires. Frank VanderSloot is one of Mitt Romney 's key gazillionaires. And his politics are therefore relevant for understanding Mitt Romney 's politics, his campaign and his candidacy. But more interesting than just Frank VanderSloot 's politics is how he functions as a political actor, which is mostly up until this point been in Idaho . But it's starting feel like it may now be nationwide. I mean, it is a basic truth of politics that when you start behaving as a political actor, you get discussed in a political context. If you're involved, for example, in putting up billboards, raising the specter of the homosexual lifestyle all around your state, and you're taking out full page ads attacking the reporting of local newspapers, if you become a national finance co-chair of a presidential campaign , you have made yourself a political figure. And people discussing politics on those that you've been engaging in will therefore be discussing you. That basic dyad of public figures getting public scrutiny is something that Frank VanderSloot deals with differently than most other people who have chosen to become political public figures. It's not just that young reporter at that local newspaper in Idaho , when people have blogged about Mr. VanderSloot and his politics, they have frequently found themselves facing copyright infringement lawsuits for doing things like posting the photo of him that is publicly displayed on his company's Web site . In 2007 , this leftie leaning Idaho blog which is 43rd State Blues , they posted a blog entry critical of Mr. VanderSloot 's politics. The blog said they received a letter from Mr. VanderSloot 's lawyers telling them to take the blog post down within 24 hours or they'd find themselves sued. The blog did take down the post. They did not want to be sued. But when they posted a copy of the lawyer's letter in order to explain to their readers why they had taken down the blog post that had previously been there, Mr. VanderSloot then sued them. They sued them for copyright infringement for posting the letter. And so, when we reported on Mr. VanderSloot in February, when he reported on Mr. VanderSloot and his politics and his role in the Romney campaign and his story of doing this kind of thing -- surprise. We got contacted by Mr. VanderSloot and his lawyers. First, they requested that we take down the web version of the segment that we did about Mr. VanderSloot . They asked that we remove it from the Internet . No. They also tried to insist that their written communications to NBC News about this matter were confidential and not for publication. Of course, we didn't enter into sort of any confidentiality agreement with them. You're writing a letter to a news organization. With all due respect, we can do anything we want with that. That's the whole free part of the free press. Ultimately, the specific thing they wanted to criticize about our coverage is they say when they published that ad about that young reporter at that Idaho newspaper and went on at length about that young reporter being gay while they were attacking him for being biased, they say that was not outing him as we described it in our broadcast because of the fact that that reporter -- because of the fact that the reporter is gay had previously been discussed on an Idaho radio station and in a blog post that he had previously written. Now, that is true. It should be noted that for most people that read this local newspaper but did not listen to that one radio show , Frank VanderSloot , in all likelihood, was the person breaking the news about this young man's sexual orientation , by printing it in that paper in that ad. But in this back and forth between Mitt Romney 's national finance co- chair and his lawyers, we do actually have some news to break which is that he is actually apologizing. I have the statement right here. Joining us now for the interview is the man to whom Mr. VanderSloot is apologizing, Peter Zuckerman , who in 2005 is a reporter at Idaho 's " Post Register " newspaper , and now is an independent journalist. He has a new book actually coming out called " Buried in the Sky ." That will be out soon. Peter , thank you for joining us. Let me read you this statement . This is from Frank VanderSloot , "I am a strong supporter of the argument that gay and lesbian people should" -- this is the wrong statement . This is the wrong statement . Oh, we've got it here. Here we go. I'm handed the wrong thing. Quote, "We believe that Peter Zuckerman is a good man who did a poor job reporting the facts on an important story in 2005 . The entire community was buzzing about Mr. Zuckerman 's sexual orientation after a local radio talk show had talked about it for days. We came to Mr. Zuckerman 's defense and chastised the talk show for bringing his sexual orientation into the debate. I apologize for any personal pain because of our involvement. That was not our intent." Obviously, that statement ends with an apology. But there is a lot in that. Let me just ask your reaction to that statement , first. PETER ZUCKERMAN , FMR. IDAHO FALLS "POST_REGISTER" WRITER : Wow . It's a start. It doesn't ring true to my experience.
MADDOW: What was the impact in your life when Frank VanderSloot ran these full page ads in your newspaper in Idaho , talking about the fact that you were gay and attacking your reporting?
ZUCKERMAN: There was a tremendous impact on me both personally and professionally. Personally, it was really hard when my boyfriend, at the time, came home and said, "I don't have my job anymore. They know I'm gay. They know about my relationship with you. They don't want me there anymore." And it was really hard for him. He actually got sick soon afterwards and was in bed for a month. I didn't know how we were going to pay the bills. It was really hard when people started leaving notes on my doorstep, when somebody kept calling in the middle of the night threatening to rape me with his handgun. That was -- I mean, that was really terrible. And then professionally, it became much harder to do my job because, yes, Idaho Falls was buzzing about my sexual orientation . And, you know, when I tried to talk to people, they would say things like, "Oh, I can't talk to you. You're a homosexual . We don't associate with that."
MADDOW: Did all of this happen because you were being discussed on a local radio show or did this happen not until your name appeared on the ad?
ZUCKERMAN: This did not happen until my name appeared in the ad.
MADDOW: When he says he wasn't outing you, everybody knew already, you dispute that contention?
ZUCKERMAN: I absolutely dispute that contention. "The Idaho Falls Post Register" was the place I worked. It was my colleagues I worked with. It was the people on my beat. Yes, a handful of people knew I'm gay. My boyfriend knew I was gay. My parents and boss knew I was gay. My boss knew I'm gay. But most -- I hadn't told anybody on my beat that I'm gay and for good reason, because I was worried they wouldn't talk to me . And I feel like the worse part isn't so much that I was harassed, but was that this was really important story that needed to get out there. This was a story about child molesters in the boy scouts . It was about trying to protect kids from these kind of pedophiles. And by making it so hard for me to gather information, it actually really limited the story. There's a lot more to that story that I was not able to get. And this was a major contributor for one of reasons I couldn't get it.
MADDOW: Mr. VanderSloot is a political figure of national importance now. H HES national finance co-chair for Mitt Romney 's presidential campaign . Having been in Idaho , how would you describe his political role? His political presence in the community and do you think it's reasonable to try to extrapolate that to national level?
ZUCKERMAN: Absolutely reasonable. He is probably the wealthiest person in Idaho -- certainly the wealthiest person in eastern Idaho . He's had his hands in a lot of campaigns often times as a donor. I don't know how active he is in actually deciding what the message is. But he is also a pretty well-respected person in Idaho Falls among people who are really extremely conservative. And what does it say about Romney , I think, this isn't a story about being gay or straight. It's about who the president leans on when he needs money, who the president seeks advice from. You know, it's about who does the president hire because who you hire is one of most important things a president does -- and we need to know who he's hiring as his national finance co-chair.
MADDOW: And in your reporting you did in Idaho , in any of the reporting that you have done, have you ever dealt with somebody who is as interventionist in terms of trying to control the coverage that a publication that you were involved in was actually standing behind?
ZUCKERMAN: Not quite like this. I've never had somebody run paid ads in the newspaper I'm working at as trying to discredit me as a person.
MADDOW: Peter Zuckerman , former " Post Register " reporter, was award- wining reporter for that series that attracted so much attention. I will say as way of thanking you for being here, that you have a new book coming out, which is called " Buried in the Sky : The Extraordinary Story of the Sherpa Clumbers on K2 's Deadliest Day ," which obviously has nothing to do with this subject whatsoever but congratulations on that.
ZUCKERMAN: Oh, thank you. I worked very hard.
MADDOW: I appreciate it.
ZUCKERMAN: Thank you.
MADDOW: All right. I should note that we invited Frank VanderSloot to join us a number of times, he declined our request. He did however speak with members of my staff today off the record, but would not agree to speak on the record or come on the air. In addition to the statement that he provided to us in regards to Mr. Zuckerman , Mr. VanderSloot also provided us one other statement regarding his involvement in those homosexual lifestyle billboards, those billboards that were put up in Idaho that he helped to finance . You can find both of those statements from Mitt Romney 's national finance co-chair, Frank VanderSloot , posted at our blog, which is MaddowBlog.com . And, Mr. VanderSloot , if you are watching, you are still very, very welcome to come on this show. You have my number. All right. Cocktail moment coming up.