Should the media report on the private lives of political figures?
Apr 10, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 29 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
Sander Vanocur, a reporter for NBC News during the Kennedy administration, has been taken to task time and again by younger mavericks over his role, shared with everyone else in the White House press corps of that day, in not reporting on rumors of President Kennedy's affairs with women. Why did so many journalists consent to look the other way? Why were there no stakeouts? Why no blunt questions during those genial press conferences? Vanocur has an answer for those armed with the benefit of hindsight: "Give me the lede." Give me, that is, the news hook big enough to justify dropping such a bomb on the American public.
While it's sure to displease contemporary students of journalism, Vanocur's rejoinder reveals one of the lines drawn daily by both editors and reporters, who must offset their desire for a scoop against the standard practices prevailing within their profession. Kennedy's indiscretions were not news because those who wrote the news decided they weren't. That collusive reticence may seem sinister now, but at the time it was deemed merely professional, even collegial. The same spirit that declined to follow up the rumors of philandering also kept under wraps photographs of the grieving president taken just after the death of his infant son. The baby's death was news; the president's expression of grief wasn't.
This wasn't always so. Journalism has seen more vicious and unscrupulous days, perhaps none more so than the first quarter of the nineteenth century, when practically anything about anyone might be printed. The ruckus over the Thomas Jefferson-Sally Hemings liaison, despite the sensation inspired recently over DNA findings, is no modern revelation. In September 1802, readers of a Federalist paper, The Richmond Recorder, found the following lede written by J. T. Callender, a hired pen for the Federalist cause:
It is well known that the man, whom it delighteth the people to honor, keeps, and for many years has kept, as his concubine, one of his own slaves. Her name is Sally. The name of her eldest son is Tom. His features are said to bear a striking . . . resemblance to those of the president himself.
Here is innuendo at its least-subtle best. Jefferson never responded to the allegation, but the charge was of a piece with the scurrility regularly practiced in the age. Many might have been disgusted; few were shocked. This is the way journalism was done.
The curious thing to ponder now is not the renewed hunger for reticence in the coverage of scandal -- an appetite achingly understandable after the furtive grotesqueries of Clinton's affair with Lewinsky -- but the assumption that discretion was ever the norm in Grub Street. The Founding Fathers would not have disagreed with Ruskin's view of journalism as a machine churning out "so many square leagues of dirtily printed falsehood." The Federalist Papers didn't really set the tone for newspapers of the early Republic.
A recent call for higher standards in journalism, Peepshow: Media and Politics in an Age of Scandal, by Larry J. Sabato, Mark Stencel, and S. Robert Lichter, has a little bit the tone of a grant-funded policy paper. But Sabato, Stencel, and Lichter aren't calling for a return to a bewigged, courtly gentility that never quite existed anyway. They well understand the demands placed upon editors and reporters anxious not to be scooped by the competition, as well as the greater fecundity of information tidbits expected in modern times by the reading and viewing public. Instead they would have us all -- especially professional journalists and all who inform or form opinion -- step back and reflect upon the effects, political and otherwise, of recent spates of systematic scandal journalism, and in so doing they offer "ways to raise editorial standards, increase journalistic credibility, and provide reasonable privacy protections to those who seek public office."