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Reporters debate the line between politicians' public, private lives

By Dan Heuchert

Five 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.

The National Symposium on Character in Politics

The 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.

The 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 Women.

Among 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.

The panelists also agreed that there is an increasing amount of reporting on politicians' private lives.

Where 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.

The 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.

"To 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.

Lowry called the hypocrisy standard "impossibly broad," since all humans display some degree of hypocrisy.

"I 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."

Charles 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.

Jane 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.

Paul 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.

"In most newsrooms, the intent is not to go there unless there are major reasons to do so,˛ he said.

There was also disagreement on what is pushing the increased reporting on the private lives of public figures.

Krauthammer 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.

"I 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.

Kirtley agreed, and added another factor: the national press corps includes more women, who she says are more concerned with character issues than male reporters.

Lowry 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, he charged.

Non-traditional media outlets -- particularly Internet figures like Matt Drudge, who broke the Monica Lewinsky story -- are also having an effect, some panelists said.

While 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."

"To do that, they are selling their souls," she said.

Taylor agreed. "The frustration of Big Media is that they are gatekeepers in a world with no gates," he said.


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