Reporters debate the
line between politicians' public, private lives
Washington journalists offered sometimes sharply divergent views
on where to draw the line between the private and public lives
of political figures at an April 3 panel discussion.
National Symposium on Character in Politics
event, which drew a standing-room-only crowd to the Rotunda's
Dome Room, was part of the Center
for Governmental Studies' well-attended National Symposium
on Character in Politics.
two-day symposium's lineup included several major political figures,
including former independent counsel Kenneth Starr; Sam Dash,
former chief counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee; Donald
Regan, chief of staff under President Reagan; William Bennett,
former secretary of education and co-director of Empower America;
and Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for
the panelists talking about "Media Influences: What's Public,
What's Private?", there were only a few areas of agreement.
None expressed support for a written code of conduct for journalists,
an idea that has been considered at times among professional journalists,
but never widely embraced. Instead, they seemed to favor a case-by-case
approach to controversial issues involving privacy concerns.
panelists also agreed that there is an increasing amount of reporting
on politicians' private lives.
they diverged was on why that has occurred, whether such reporting
has gone too far, and more specifically, what the standard for
"too far" is.
most pointed exchanges came between Rich Lowry, a 1990 U.Va. alumnus
and editor of the conservative National Review, and David Corn,
Washington editor of The Nation, which has a more liberal approach.
me, there is a story when you can prove any degree of hypocrisy,"
said Corn, after recounting how revelations of former Republican
House Speaker Newt Gingrich's extra-marital affair with a Capitol
Hill staffer cost him the speakership, and ultimately led him
to resign his seat.
called the hypocrisy standard "impossibly broad," since
all humans display some degree of hypocrisy.
think there are certain things we should not know about our politicians,˛
he said. He suggested that there should be a separation between
the messenger and the message. "Whether you're living it
or not has nothing to do with its validity."
Krauthammer, a syndicated columnist from the Washington Post,
said there is a "clear and obvious standard" -- whether
the politician has engaged in something illegal, since "breaking
the law is a public act." If the conduct falls short of that
standard, the burden of proof for revealing it should be very
heavy, he said.
E. Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University
of Minnesota's School of Journalism who served for 14 years as
executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the
Press, said she doesn't like to hear journalists referring to
legal standards. "The law does not seek the truth, and if
anybody tells you different, they are lying," she said.
Taylor, executive director of the Alliance for Better Campaigns
and a reporter for 25 years, the last 14 at the Washington Post,
took a more moderate approach. He said that the "health and
wealth" of a politician are clearly relevant. Also deserving
of closer examination is behavior that goes beyond what is usually
accepted, with an eye to how it may affect one's ability to do
the job. An extra-marital fling 30 years ago should be less likely
to find its way into print than a pattern of compulsive womanizing,
for instance, he said.
most newsrooms, the intent is not to go there unless there are
major reasons to do so,˛ he said.
was also disagreement on what is pushing the increased reporting
on the private lives of public figures.
offered two explanations. One is that politics is "far less important˛
than it was during the world wars and the Cold War, he suggested,
with fewer compelling issues to debate.
blame the politicians themselves," he also said, noting that
they often wrap themselves in the cloak of "family values,"
and parade their families before the media. "By doing so,
they invite scrutiny" as to whether the warm images of family
harmony they project are genuine, he said.
agreed, and added another factor: the national press corps includes
more women, who she says are more concerned with character issues
than male reporters.
said ideological considerations also drive reporting of private
lives, charging that reporters have a liberal bias. Reporters
like stories about hypocrisy more when the hypocrites are Republicans,
media outlets -- particularly Internet figures like Matt Drudge,
who broke the Monica Lewinsky story -- are also having an effect,
some panelists said.
traditional journalists seem to believe that their emphasis on
accuracy and corroboration will triumph in the journalistic market,
Kirtley suggested that the speed and immediacy of the Web has
caused the mainstream media to "lower the bar."
do that, they are selling their souls," she said.
agreed. "The frustration of Big Media is that they are gatekeepers
in a world with no gates," he said.