The weird story behind Sheldon Whitehouse’s beach club furor 

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s (D-R.I.) association with a famously exclusive beach club in Newport was widely known in Rhode Island and not much of a controversy until a week ago, when it suddenly exploded into the national news scene, fueled by the power of Twitter and a growing national debate over racial and economic inequality in America.

The story of Whitehouse’s club “membership” was made extra juicy by unsubstantiated claims that Bailey’s Beach Club — a small, elite club where John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier frolicked in the waves when their families first met to discuss wedding plans — is an all-white organization and that Whitehouse promised to resign from it when he first ran for Senate in 2006.

One veteran of Rhode Island’s political journalism scene expressed some surprise that an old story about Whitehouse’s affiliation with Bailey’s Beach Club blew up into a national controversy.

Scott MacKay, a longtime political reporter for The Providence Journal and political analyst for The People’s Radio who is now retired, noted that Whitehouse’s 2018 general election opponent, Bob Flanders, tried to call out the senator over his membership. But the attack fell flat because Flanders is the president of another exclusive beach club in Narragansett, R.I., The Dunes, a predominantly white establishment.  

MacKay said the exclusivity of Bailey’s is well known in Rhode Island. He recounted an old Newport society rumor that Kennedy, when he was a senator, couldn’t sign a check at the club, where Bouvier’s family were members, because he was Catholic. The president got full membership rights only after his election to the nation’s highest office.

Fredrik Logevall, Kennedy’s biographer at Harvard University, couldn’t confirm the story because he’s still researching volume two of Kennedy’s biography and noted the John F. Kennedy Library is still closed because of the pandemic. 

Conservative critics have groused about Whitehouse’s membership in the club not gaining much traction in the media.

The Capital Research Center, a conservative nonprofit group that has battled with Whitehouse over climate change and other issues, in April 2019 published a piece by Ken Braun, its senior investigative researcher, that criticized Whitehouse for “trying to represent a left-of-center state while holding a stake in a ritzy beach club fully-stocked with only rich white people.”

On the morning of Friday, June 19, before the Whitehouse story made national news, local conservative talk radio host Jim Polito needled the senator on the air over his association with Bailey’s, mocking him as Sheldon “only whites in the house.”

When GoLocalProv, the Providence-based online media site, reported last Saturday that Whitehouse was continuing to defend his family’s membership in “the all-white private Bailey’s Beach Club” and linked to a story it posted in 2017 claiming Whitehouse “reportedly promised to quit his membership in Bailey’s,” it got picked up by national media and made a huge splash.

Its first pickup was in Politico Playbook on Sunday morning, a hot item that got more national play when New York Times reporter Ken Vogel tweeted about it shortly after noon Sunday. Vogel tweeted, “Sheldon Whitehouse, his wife & their families have been members of an all-White private beach club for decades.”

Fox News jumped on the story next, reporting, “Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse last week refused to apologize for his family’s membership in a reportedly all-White beach club.”

The New York Post was also early on the story, reporting that Whitehouse “is facing new scrutiny over his decades-long membership in an allegedly all-White private beach club, as he bills himself a progressive and prominent critic of ‘systemic racism.’”

Soon after, The New York Times and The Washington Post picked up the story, using GoLocalProv as a key source.

The New York Times cited GoLocalProv’s report that Whitehouse committed to leaving the club in 2006, though it also included a statement from Whitehouse spokesman Richard Davidson that he had never made any such promise.

The Washington Post ran two stories, one headlined “The big questions on Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and the allegedly ‘all-white’ beach club.”

The Post also cited GoLocalProv’s reporting that Whitehouse “reportedly promised to quit his membership in Bailey’s” in 2006, adding that the senator denied he ever made such a claim and noting that the Post had been unable to locate a contemporaneous report indicating such a promise by Whitehouse.

Josh Fenton, the co-founder and CEO of GoLocal24, the parent company of GoLocalProv, was unable to point to any contemporaneous reporting that Whitehouse had promised to quit Bailey’s but said it was “common knowledge.”

“He announced that he was resigning all single-sex clubs and clubs that did not include minorities,” he said. “He resigned from the Reading Room, which was an all-male club … in 2006. He also transferred his shares in Bailey’s Beach Club to his wife’s ownership.”

Fenton, citing the club’s membership book from 2017, said Sandra Thornton Whitehouse, the senator’s wife, now has 25 shares in the club, which he said is more than members of the Van Beuren family, heirs of the Campbell Soup fortune, own at Bailey’s.

A spokeswoman for Whitehouse, however, said the senator transferred his shares in the club to his wife in 1991, long before he ran for the Senate in 2006, and did so because the club has a policy against both spouses being share-owning members.

Fuel for the controversy also came from Whitehouse himself when he appeared to acknowledge that the club didn’t include any people of color and seemed to express disappointment that the lack of diversity was a problem.

Whitehouse later said he was caught “off guard” when Kate Nagle, the news editor at GoLocalProv, asked him on video about what she called his “expressed concerns” about the “all-white” club.

The senator told Nagle during that interaction on Friday, June 18, “I think the people who are running the place are still working on that and I’m sorry it hasn’t happened yet,” referring to the club’s diversity.

The story shifted dramatically on Wednesday, however, when the club, which is also known as the Spouting Rock Beach Association, issued a statement denouncing reports that it is all-white as “inaccurate and false.”

Christina Bellantoni, a former veteran national political reporter who now is a professor of professional practice at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and director of the Annenberg Media Center, said national media outlets should have made more of an effort to verify whether Bailey’s Beach Club had minority members.

“I would have said to my students had they come to me with this, ‘Hey, let’s dig a little bit. Let’s wait,” she said.

“If I were a major national news outlet having seen that video, I would have taken a minute to do more research before sharing it and certainly before perpetuating it,” she added. 

Bellantoni, however, said the video of Whitehouse’s answers gave the story more momentum.

“It’s kind of on the senator for not clarifying it more quickly because you cannot unring a bell, and once it’s out there, no one reads the follow-up,” she added. 

Fenton pushed back against any criticism of GoLocalProv’s reporting, arguing that Whitehouse’s responses to Nagle carried the story on its own.

“If you take the most exclusive club in Washington, D.C., and multiplied it by 10, it is not as exclusive as Bailey’s Beach Club. The legacy goes back to families like the Vanderbilts, and both Sheldon Whitehouse’s family and his wife’s family have been members of Bailey’s Beach Club for generations,” he said.

“Their home is somewhere between a quarter of a mile and half-mile away on one of the most beautiful coastal areas in the country, and there are very few houses in between the senator’s home and Bailey’s Beach Club. The senator’s wife goes there every day,” he added.

Fenton explained he knows a lot of details about the club because “we’ve talked to a lot of members over four years.”  

In a letter to club members that circulated Wednesday, the club’s president, Alexander Auersperg, an Austrian prince, urged members to use “restraint” when talking to the media to avoid “these kinds of devastating mischaracterizations.”

In his own statement on Wednesday, Whitehouse said he would not ask his wife or other family members to resign from the club because “they are on the right side of pushing for improvements” and “my relationship with my family is not one in which I tell them what to do.”

But he also admitted he belonged to a sailing club in Newport that “does lack diversity,” although he explained it doesn’t have exclusionary rules.

One significant media outlet that held back from reporting the story initially was The Providence Journal, the state’s main local newspaper.

The Journal led its story with the club’s denial that it is all-white and its statement that “club members and their families have included people of many racial, religious and ethnic backgrounds from around the world who come to Newport every summer.”

Whitehouse explained in his statement Wednesday that he “made the mistake of accepting” the “premise” of the GoLocalPro reporter when she characterized Bailey’s as all-white.  

“I then checked the assertion and was assured that, first, the assertion was wrong, there is diversity in the membership and there are non-white club members,” he said.

MacKay, the retired veteran political journalist who worked for 25 years for the Journal, said it didn’t jump on GoLocalProv because “we know better.”

He said that “in journalistic circles,” GoLocalProv “is not well-regarded,” noting the publication often posts stories without bylines, in contrast with standard journalistic practice.

Bellantoni, the Annenberg Media Center director, said publishing bylines is associated with good journalism.

In 2018, then-Providence City Council President David Salvatore called on all government agencies and quasi-government agencies to stop advertising with GoLocalProv after he found out that his predecessor Luis Aponte had signed a no-bid secret contract with the media site a few years earlier to pay it $3,000 a month to post notices and meeting agendas that were already available for free to the public on another government website.

Salvatore thought it was an attempt to solicit positive coverage or avoid negative coverage.

In an interview with The Hill, he characterized it as a “pay-to-play” operation.

“I still believe there are state agencies who advertise on this website out of fear they will be the subject of vicious and false attacks,” he said.

Fenton rejected criticism of GoLocalProv’s journalistic practices.

He said the outlet doesn’t publish stories with bylines to protect reporters from harassment and threats.

“We’ve broken a large number of crime stories, organized crime stories,” he said.

He dismissed Salvatore’s accusations as unfounded and motivated by personal animosity.

“We have sponsored content. … The New York Times does. Many news organizations do. It’s not on politics. There’s not pay-to-play on politics,” he said. “We write 20 to 30 stories a day, and maybe one of them is sponsored content.

“David Salvatore got very upset because we wrote a story that he was going to support a very controversial apartment tower,” he explained. “He didn’t like that we flushed him out on that story.”

Fenton also waved off any suspicions that GoLocalProv is motivated by a political agenda.

“Prior to launching GoLocal — I’ll put it in complete perspective — I co-hosted two fundraisers for Sheldon Whitehouse. I donated to him, and he’s advertised on GoLocal,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Whitehouse said she wasn’t aware of Fenton co-hosting a fundraiser for Whitehouse in recent decades.

Fenton once served as an aide to former Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), Whitehouse’s predecessor in the Senate, and later served as a member of the Providence City Council.

His wife, Nagle, who interviewed and posted the video of Whitehouse on GoLocalProv, according to her LinkedIn page, previously served as an aide to former Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), whom Whitehouse defeated in the 2006 election. 

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