Laura Foreman, Reporter Whose Romance Became a Scandal, Dies at 76

The disclosure of her relationship with a source while at The Philadelphia Inquirer ended her journalism career and prompted the paper to develop an ethics code.,

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Laura Foreman, a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer in the 1970s, was surely not the first journalist to become romantically involved with a source. But she was among the first to have that romance, with a powerful politician, blow up into a public scandal.

By the time the affair was disclosed — and The Inquirer learned that the politician had given her more than $20,000 worth of gifts, including jewelry, furniture and a fur coat, and helped her buy a 1964 Morgan sports car — she was working in the Washington bureau of The New York Times. The disclosure cost Ms. Foreman her job and her journalism career at 34. It gave the up-and-coming Inquirer a black eye. And it led the paper to adopt one of the first ethics policies in what was still a largely freewheeling, unprescribed profession.

The politician, State Senator Henry J. Cianfrani, who was known as Buddy, went to jail on unrelated charges of corruption. He was released in 1979, and he and Ms. Foreman were married in 1980.

While Mr. Cianfrani successfully regained his status as a ward leader in South Philadelphia, Ms. Foreman, a quick and facile writer with a literary bent, went to work for Time-Life Books in Alexandria, Va. She was the author of more than 40 volumes, many of them centered on historical figures or true crimes. She and Mr. Cianfrani later went their separate ways, but were still married when he died in 2002 at 79.

Ms. Foreman, The Times learned recently, died on June 4, 2020, at her home in Memphis. She was 76. She had written in her will that she did not want a funeral or memorial service and had directed that her ashes be scattered in the Mississippi River. There was no obituary. The Times confirmed her death through public records and with friends. One friend, Paul R. Lawler, the executor of her estate, said the cause of death was uterine cancer.

Laura Virginia Foreman was born on June 11, 1943, in Anniston, Ala., about 60 miles east of Birmingham. Her mother, Virginia (Sims) Foreman, was a homemaker. Her father, Wilmer L. Foreman, who was known as Bill, was a journalist. He worked at small papers in Alabama, including The Baldwin Times in Bay Minette, and The Atmore Advance, where he was editor and publisher, as well as at The Columbus Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi, where he was editor.

He was a naval officer during World War II and in 1948 moved the family to Memphis, where he worked in public relations and advertising.

Laura went to Emory University in Atlanta, where she studied English literature and was a member of the Delta Delta Delta sorority. After graduating in 1965, she worked for two years as a public relations supervisor for the Southern Bell Telephone Company in Atlanta.

She began her journalism career in 1967 as a reporter for The Associated Press in New Orleans, a city she loved and returned to often. After a few months, she worked briefly at the A.P. headquarters in New York before being transferred to Atlanta. She resigned in 1969 and moved back to New Orleans, where she joined United Press International.

While covering the South, she crossed paths with Eugene L. Roberts Jr., then the chief Southern and civil rights correspondent for The Times. Mr. Roberts later became the editor of The Inquirer, where he hired Ms. Foreman as a features reporter in 1973. The next year he named her the paper’s political writer, the first woman to hold that title in The Inquirer’s 145-year history.

“She was a very talented political reporter, one of the best I have ever known,” Mr. Roberts, who became managing editor of The Times after he left The Inquirer, said by email.

Her focus was Philadelphia’s 1975 mayoral race, in which the brash and cocky incumbent, Frank L. Rizzo, the city’s former police commissioner, was seeking a second term.

One of Mr. Rizzo’s close allies was Mr. Cianfrani, a longtime ward boss who became chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and one of Pennsylvania’s most influential lawmakers. A streetwise power broker, he was a natural source and occasional subject for the new political writer.

Rumors began circulating that the two were involved romantically, but Ms. Foreman denied them, and the editors discounted them.

She went to The Times in January 1977, arriving in Washington with the new Carter administration. Her writing sparkled. In advance of a visit by President Jimmy Carter to Yazoo City, Miss., she wrote that the city “straddles a subtle cultural fault line between the older, harrier folkways of the hardscrabble hills and the lustier civilization that flourished closer to the Mississippi.” Her literary debt to Edith Wharton, one of her favorite authors, was evident in a light feature article she wrote from a soggy social event in Virginia: “Rain pooled in the brim of Tom Ryder’s black derby, pouring in a miniature waterfall on to his nose, where it dispersed in steady driblets on to his stopwatch.”

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Ms. Foreman in 1977, when she joined the Washington bureau of The New York Times. The newspaper asked her to resign eight months later over her conduct in her previous job, at The Philadelphia Inquirer.Credit…The New York Times

But her promising start at The Times exploded eight months later. The Inquirer reported in August 1977 that Ms. Foreman had been questioned by the F.B.I. as part of an investigation into Mr. Cianfrani. It said she had been romantically involved with him and that she had accepted his expensive gifts while she was covering politics. Nonetheless, the article noted, editors had examined her past work and had found it to be fair and accurate.

“I don’t believe I have done anything wrong,” Ms. 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.”

The Times told her she had to resign, even though the conduct in question had occurred at another paper. The Times, in fact, said initially that her work had comported with the highest ethical standards. But according to an account that Ms. Foreman wrote in The Washington Monthly in 1978, A.M. Rosenthal, The Times’s executive editor, told her that because the paper was writing tough stories at the time about conflicts of interest involving Bert Lance, a close Carter adviser, it couldn’t very well harbor a conflict of its own.

To others, Mr. Rosenthal uttered an unforgettable comment that has been rendered several different ways but in essence said that he didn’t care if his reporters were having sex with elephants — as long as they weren’t covering the circus.

In Philadelphia, Mr. Roberts, the Inquirer editor, appointed the paper’s top investigative team of Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele to dig into the affair. They produced a 17,000-word article, published on Oct. 16, 1977, that exposed internal rivalries at the paper and found that editors had looked the other way to protect a favored reporter, Ms. Foreman. It was among the first instances of a newspaper turning its investigative artillery on itself.

Mr. Roberts soon asked the managing editor, Gene Foreman — no relation to Laura — to prepare a comprehensive ethics code, something few newspapers had in that era. The new code required staff members to report potential conflicts to their managers and to take action to remove any conflict, by changing beats, for example. It also banned the widespread practice of accepting “freebies” from sources and others in their news coverage.

The point was to avoid even the appearance of a conflict, Mr. Foreman, author of “The Ethical Journalist,” a college text first published in 2009, said in a phone interview.

The case prompted a torrent of stories in the news media about the news media itself. Some critics saw a double standard for men and women. Male reporters, wrote Richard Cohen, a columnist for The Washington Post, “have been having affairs with women they cover for as long as there have been reporters, women and spare time.” And yet, he added, no man had even been chastised for it.

As Ms. Foreman’s world collapsed, Mr. Cianfrani, at the peak of his power, was indicted by a federal grand jury on 110 counts of racketeering, bribery, obstruction of justice and tax evasion. He pleaded guilty, was sentenced to five years in federal prison and was out on parole after 27 months. He divorced his estranged wife in 1979 and on July 14, 1980, Mr. Cianfrani, 57, and Ms. Foreman, 37, were married in Falls Church, Va., where she lived.

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Ms. Foreman with her father, Wilmer L. Foreman, who had also worked as a journalist.Credit…via Foreman family

Staying in the Washington area, Ms. Foreman re-established herself at Time-Life Books.

“I hired her as a writer/editor at Time-Life Books because her abilities were unmistakable,” George Constable, the managing editor at the time, said in an email. “She was a big talent — very perceptive, wise about all sorts of things, an excellent writer and an extremely nice and interesting person.”

Ms. Foreman, who at one point supervised a staff of about 20 people at Time-Life, also freelanced for Discovery Publishing, which produced illustrated books to accompany television specials, and for other publishers. Her work included “Cleopatra’s Palace: In Search of a Legend” (1999), a detailed portrait of Egypt’s famous queen; and “Napoleon’s Lost Fleet” (1999, with Ellen Blue Phillips), an account of the 1798 Battle of the Nile.

“She could just tell a story with such seeming effortlessness and was a very fast writer,” Rita Mullin, editorial director of Discovery Publishing, said in a phone interview. “I knew she would get a manuscript to me on time and it would require very little work.”

Ms. Foreman left for New Orleans in the 1990s. “She found the house of her dreams in the French Quarter and knew she could support herself by freelancing, which she did,” Ms. Phillips, a friend from Time-Life, said by phone. Ms. Foreman also moved her ailing father from Memphis into a nursing home nearby.

But after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, she, along with her father and her pets, moved back to Memphis. Her father died in 2008. She is survived by Mr. Cianfrani’s daughters and grandchildren.

During the last few years of her life, Ms. Foreman developed a romantic relationship with a retired lawyer in Nashville, according to a mutual friend who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

After the man died, his former wife and Ms. Foreman became good friends, and she was with Ms. Foreman at her death.

On a sunny day, the woman and her family took Ms. Foreman’s ashes to Mud Island in Memphis and scattered them on the Mississippi.

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

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