Media and Politics in an Age of Scandal

by Larry J. Sabato, Mark Stencel, and S. Robert Lichter

Rowman & Littlefield, 177 pp., $ 22.95

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."

The authors don't shy away from granting passage to legitimate, probing inquiries, even into the private lives of public people. Peeping into windows can serve a purpose: "Intense scrutiny by the press and political opponents can drive away scalawags, increase public accountability and foster realistic attitudes about the human fallibility of elected leaders," they write. And private lives have been fair game in modern political journalism ever since the Tidal Basin sporting of Wilbur Mills in 1974. Although the authors worry that relentless and ill-advised exposes may continue to wear down voter turnout and chase away worthy men and women from seeking political office, the public is served when candidates and officials are made to stand before fair inquiries into their public and private doings, especially when the latter impinge sufficiently on their public duties.

The public is not served, though, when the rules of propriety are "set by late-night comedians, grocery store tabloids, [and] crusading pornographers." Fairness is the point here. If the mainstream media have always found professional foul lines difficult to measure and chalk for themselves, now they must compete with a garish multiplicity of new sources of information, some of which exist only to entertain and titillate. The authors of Peepshow don't mind embarrassing exposure; it's the gratuity and prurience of recent experience -- the peepshow effect -- they wish to curb.

President Clinton's antics receive comparatively little attention in the book. With every salacious charge, from fondled interns to escaped paternity to rape, flung his way, one would think the authors could simply put Lexis-Nexis into overdrive and have it write their book for them. This has been a presidency to which only Petronius Arbiter or Penthouse could have done justice. Nonetheless, the Clinton story broods over every other story highlighted in the book. It tends to take up all the air in the room. But he isn't typical, and more helpful to would-be journalistic rule-makers are the grayer cases, the ones where delicate judgment calls were made, for better or worse, largely by professionals trying to get it right.

The authors endorse what they call a "Fairness Doctrine." There are instances where politicians' private lives are fairly subject to review: their financial status and their health, incidents landing them in court, sexual activity where private and public roles are mixed (as with an affair with subordinates or lobbyists), compulsive or "manifestly indiscreet" sexual conduct, illegal drug use as an adult or having condoned that use in others, and private behavior involving public money. But then certain strands of private life are to be considered out of bounds: matters involving underage children or other family members (here we have some qualifications), "current extramarital activity as long as it is discreet and non-compulsive" (here too we find qualifications in a category not all are likely to agree with), sexual orientation "per se," and drug or alcohol abuse that could be tagged as "youthful indulgence or experimentation."

Thus go the principles. Next we see them applied to recent stories. For example, rumors reached numerous newspapers and broadcasters during the 1996 presidential campaign that Bob Dole had had a four-year extramarital affair before his divorce in 1972. The Washington Post and Time declined to report them. Ought they to have done so, especially as the woman involved had decided to go on the record? No, according to these rules, because the affair, if it had happened, indicated no compulsive conduct on Dole's part, nor had Dole made President Clinton's conduct an issue that year. (Incidentally, why the reference to Bob Dole's "first divorce"? Do the authors know something Elizabeth Dole doesn't?)

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.

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