Should the media report on the private lives of political figures?
Apr 10, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 29 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
How about Vice President Gore's problems with his children? First, his sixteen-year-old daughter was caught with an open beer can in a car in 1995, while his son was found to be playing musical chairs with private schools around Washington and was suspected of having used marijuana in the seventh grade. Surprisingly, the media showed restraint with the second story, but the first, the authors believe, was unfair and overdone. In both cases, the principles hold that covering these stories violated fairness. The authors even provide us with a score card, based on a lettered scale, that grades the performance of the press on these and a handful of other stories. What about Governor Roy Romer's affair with a top adviser? Or Newt Gingrich's with a young employee? Or the Boston Globe's handling of Ray Flynn's drinking? We even meet the case of John McCain's temper. Under these principles, George W. Bush would have fared well with his cocaine barrage; he would not have had to resort to sophistries and complex arithmetic. John F. Kennedy, though, would have been sunk. Vanocur would have had his lede, with or without the Mafia girlfriend.
The picture emerging from the case studies portrays a press in remarkably good shape, restraining and asserting itself with warrant, and admitting mistakes of fact or judgment when they are made. We have reason to be hopeful. The wildcard, though, is the great slough of the alternative media. Where exactly does the Internet fit in here, the Matt Drudge clones who have an incentive not to be bound by these journalistic rules? Professional standards do not bind non-professionals, and one of journalism's most important tasks today remains much what it always was: "Reminding readers why they cannot believe everything they read and hear, online and off."
One thing needs enforcement more than anything else, and it can't even be helpfully defined: Taste. Audiences haven't been fed up with Peeping Tom journalism and its needlessly licentious revelations alone, but with the lack of decency that characterized much otherwise imperfect press coverage two or three generations ago. We can applaud the greater openness even while lamenting the lapse of a world where we didn't have to hear about stained cocktail dresses and cigars as sex toys. Civility will always require that certain shades be left closed, certain doors shut. As Alistair Cooke rightly noted not too long ago, when reticence passed away, it took more with it than the dearth of information and the circumspect reply. Tastefulness went down too.
Tracy Lee Simmons is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College.