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Scandalous News!!!

Should the media report on the private lives of political figures?

Apr 10, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 29 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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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?)