The story of Laura Foreman, reporter whose affair inspired The Inquirer’s ethics policy and proved a double standard in journalism

“I don’t care if my reporters are sleeping with elephants, as long as they aren’t covering the circus.”

Left: Laura Foreman doing her job; Right: Convicted state legislator Henry 'Buddy' Cianfrani speaking to the media about their relationship

Left: Laura Foreman doing her job; Right: Convicted state legislator Henry 'Buddy' Cianfrani speaking to the media about their relationship

The Philadelphia Inquirer via Newspapers.com
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In 1974, Laura Foreman became the first woman political reporter in The Philadelphia Inquirer’s 145-year history.

Three years later, news of her affair with a source would inspire The Inquirer to create its first ever ethics code, as she became one of the leading public examples of the industry’s double standard for men and women journalists.

She died on June 4, 2020, the New York Times reported last week, confirming through public records and interviews with Foreman’s loved ones that she had been dealing with uterine cancer.

Foreman had recently moved to DC to work for the New York Times, when, in 1977, The Inquirer reported that FBI agents had questioned her in connection with a case against her beau, Henry J. “Buddy” Cianfrani, a former Pennsylvania state senator and South Philly ward leader. The report revealed the pair were romantically involved.

The paper’s subsequent, 17-page account of their relationship effectively cut short her promising rise in journalism.

She didn’t go down without a fight, and defended her reporting, even as she was ostracized by her former colleagues and the general public. She eventually slipped into a successful second career in book publishing.

When Cianfrani returned home from prison in 1980, the pair were married and settled in the DC area. While last week’s Times report said they eventually separated, they were still married when Cianfrani died in 2002.

A fast rise through the ranks

Foreman began her life in the American South. She was born in Alabama to a newspaper reporter father. He rose to become editor and then publisher of The Atmore Advance, then moved to become editor of a local Mississippi paper, and eventually transitioned to advertising and public relations in Memphis.

After graduating from Emory University, Foreman followed her father’s footsteps in reverse, starting her career in PR before turning to journalism two years later.

While working for the Associated Press, she met then-New York Times reporter Eugene L. Roberts. When Roberts became the Inquirer editor, he hired Foreman as a features reporter.

She joined the paper in 1973, writing stories that included a piece on whether an affair can boost marriage; a look at a white, unwed Penn professor who adopted a biracial daughter; and tips on how to view the Christmastime Kohoutek comet.

Roberts promoted Foreman to politics writer, asking her to cover the upcoming 1975 mayoral race featuring incumbent mayor Frank Rizzo.

Cianfrani was a “Rizzo man,” Foreman wrote in a June 1974 piece about the campaign. She included Cianfrani in her coverage at least six times, according to an Inquirer archive.

Her writing was sometimes pithy, descriptive and lyrical, something the Times attributed to her love of literature. One lead from the 1975 read, for example, “You don’t have to be a masochist to be a Philadelphia Republican looking toward next year’s mayor’s race. But it helps.”

Mayor Rizzo won reelection. Foreman’s reporting continued on other topics. Weeks later, she published a book review. In 1976, she co-reported and wrote a lengthy Inquirer feature about the murder of PPD Officer John Trettin in the South Philly Wilson Park projects.

Roberts eventually became the New York Times managing editor. He called Foreman “one of the best [political reporters] I have ever known.” Foreman joined the Times in 1977, one decade after she entered journalism.

‘I don’t believe I have done anything wrong’

Eight months after Foreman started at the Times, the Inquirer report revealing her relationship with Cianfrani came out.

That report bore several facts:

  • In 1975, while Foreman was covering the mayoral election, colleagues told editors she was seeing Cianfrani and asked for her to be removed from the beat
  • Cianfrani denied the romance and editors could not confirm it
  • Foreman asked to be removed from the political beat in late 1975, after the election was over
  • In late winter or early spring 1976, after Foreman had left the political beat, her relationship with Cianfrani was confirmed
  • Foreman’s friends said the romantic relationship didn’t start until after Foreman was off the beat

Quoted at the time, Cianfrani said, “I feel certain that a paper with the reputation of the New York Times will evaluate all of the innuendoes and in the final outcome they will come to realize that everything was above board.”

In its expose, the Inquirer would allege that while the politician bestowed $20,000 worth of gifts on the reporter over a year and a half, she continued to write stories about his political interests and rivals. Those gifts included jewelry, furniture and a $3,000 fur coat that Foreman reportedly tried to return. Cianfrani also reportedly helped her buy a 1964 Morgan sports car.

“I don’t believe I have done anything wrong,” Foreman told The Inquirer in a statement.

“I may have done something injudicious. Certainly, I do not believe I ever wrote anything for The Inquirer which violated my own professional integrity.”

‘Sleeping with elephants’

Foreman went on to defend her closeness to political sources and politicians in an introspective 1978 Washington Monthly piece titled, “My Side of the Story.”

In it, she talked about how she believed it was her role as a reporter to breach the chasm between politicians and the media to reveal who elected officials really were, and how that influenced their policy decisions.

“In a time when politicians’ principled positions on the issues usually change from minute to minute, the real need, I thought, was to know who they were, how they thought and felt and reacted,” Foreman wrote, “where they stood in that inner battle between the swine and the angel that is common to us all. It didn’t take long for me to discover that that sort of reporting was fraught with certain hazards.”

In an Esquire piece on the subject, Foreman’s former Inquirer colleague ​​Paul Critchlow stated, “Foreman wrote nothing about Cianfrani … that I have not written in my own coverage.”

A 1977 Washington Post columnist highlighted the double standard, writing, “Male reporters … have been having affairs with women they cover for as long as there have been reporters, women and spare time.”

And in the February 1978 issue of Esquire, writer Eleanor Randolph talked in depth about Jay McMullen, a Chicago Daily News reporter who covered city hall for more than two decades and openly dated a high-ranking mayoral staffer for several years while still on the beat.

After news of the affair broke, then-NYT executive editor, A.M. Rosenthal, spoke this famous line: “I don’t care if my reporters are sleeping with elephants, as long as they aren’t covering the circus.”

Eventually, passing time made things rosier for Foreman.

At Time-Life Books, she published history works including “Napoleon’s Lost Fleet,” “Cleopatra’s Palace,” and a book about Alexander the Great. George Constable, who hired her there, said “her abilities were unmistakable.”

And though her career in journalism was ended by their affair, Cianfrani ended up resuming his role as an influential politician, despite actual jail time and corruption.

In 2018, Politico writer Jack Shafer used Foreman’s case as an example in a column about Ali Watkins.

Watkins is a New York Times reporter who had a relationship with James A. Wolfe, a source linked to classified information that became the crux of an accurate 2017 Buzzfeed scoop Watkins published about the Trump campaign. Watkins denied Wolfe was her source, though an F.B.I. indictment suggested otherwise.

Watkins, however, is still employed at the Times.

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