Nov 1 1999

Covering The Private Lives of Politicians

Long before he became a Comedy Central game show host, Ben Stein was a prominent conservative media critic. On CNN‘s Crossfire in 1987, Stein praised the news media’s exposure of extramarital activity involving then-Democratic presidential frontrunner Gary Hart as “one of the highest moments of the press’s utility.”

CROSSFIRE HOST: “How far would you have the press go? Would you say that a candidate should be asked if he’s ever had a homosexual experience?”

BEN STEIN: “Absolutely, as far as I’m concerned. Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely.”

Stein appeared again on Crossfire a year later, as reporters were pursuing an alleged dalliance between vice-presidential candidate Dan Quayle and a female lobbyist. With a Republican being probed, Stein remained “absolute” in his convictions, only they’d rotated precisely180 degrees.

CROSSFIRE HOST: Do you think the media was fair in going after Senator Quayle on the subject of Paula Parkinson?

BEN STEIN: Absolutely not. I think that if they started going after all the presidential candidates on the subject of their sex lives, they could really talk about very little else. I think it’s a very dangerous subject for the Democrats to open, or for anyone to open, and it’s a complete irrelevancy as well.

The moral here is that the continuous carping from conservatives about media unfairness to their candidates has long been more of a tactic (to intimidate reporters toward softer coverage) than a statement of coherent principle or fact.

Today, one hears the absurd claim that Bill Clinton — with the most scrutinized personal life in presidential history — has gotten off easy compared to George W. Bush. Cyberpundit Matt Drudge, for example, recently complained about a Los Angeles Times story on Bush’s Vietnam era draft-avoidance: “I don’t ever remember the Los Angeles Times doing full exposes on Clinton dodging the draft,” said Drudge. In fact, the L.A. Times repeatedly probed Clinton’s draft evasion and its page-one expose on Sept. 2, 1992 re-ignited the story.

For folks who are more journalist than partisan, it should be possible to apply a single standard to the issue of reporting on the private lives of politicians. Call me old-fashioned, even “conservative,” but I like the traditional rules: Except where private conduct strongly connects to public office, a politician’s personal life is not news. Nor is gossip about such.

In the last dozen years, these rules have been shattered, as tabloid values and a ratings-above-all-else mentality have taken over much of the corporate-owned mainstream media, especially television. In 1991, NBC devoted a five-month investigation to “The Senator’s Secrets,” a segment focusing on whether a Democratic Senator had, years earlier, attended parties where drugs were used and whether he’d received sex — or just a massage — from a beauty queen. With a political press corps that seems to have grown bored covering politicians who aren’t celebrities, personal gossip wins out over public issues and probes of “the character issue” are reduced to sex, drugs and draft dodging.

Pundits more readily find a character flaw when politicians partake of consensual sex than when they partake of policies that comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted. During the journalistic jihad of 1998, it was telling to see national news outlets become ferocious watchdogs chasing President Clinton’s evasions about his private life when these same outlets acted more like toothless lapdogs as Clinton dissembled about major public issues from welfare to NAFTA to overseas bombings.

On the slippery slope into politicians’ private lives, mainstream journalists have offered various excuses for abandoning old rules.

THE “NEW MEDIA” MADE ME DO IT: Once, only tabloid newspapers trafficked in gossip about public figures. Now there’s the World Wide Web, which feeds talk radio, which feeds “all-news” cable. If we don’t publish what millions of people have already heard or read, we’re acting as censors, or people will think we missed the story. And, in the 24-hour news cycle, if we hold back to check the facts ourselves, we’ll be beaten by the competition.

Yes, there are new pressures, perhaps none more significant than conglomerate ownership prodding news outlets toward quick ratings and short-term profits. But mainstream journalistic values themselves have eroded. Take the Gary Hart case. For the historically challenged, in 1987 there was no Web, no Drudge — and CNN, with little clout, was all that existed in all news cable. It was “old media” journalists who stalked Hart: The Miami Herald set up a stakeout at his D.C. home and a Washington Post reporter asked, “Have you ever committed adultery?”

IT’S NOT ABOUT SEX: What we’re covering isn’t sex, it’s his judgment (Hart).

It’s the journalistic ethics of covering politicians’ sex lives (Gennifer Flowers, see Nightline‘s fig leaf, 1/23/92). It’s the misuse of government employees (Troopergate). It’s perjury and obstruction (Monicagate). It’s not the sex, it’s the lying and cover-up (all the above).

If Monica Lewinsky coverage wasn’t about sex, why did Newsweek‘s original expose quote a real-estate agent on how she kept condoms by her bedside? Why did Peter Jennings interview a sex columnist about oral sex? Why did Fox News air a poll question: Is Lewinsky an “average girl…or young tramp looking for thrills”? If you think coverage wasn’t mostly about sex, you must believe a perjury investigation of Clinton on a land deal or campaign finance abuse would also have garnered thousands of hours of TV coverage.

As for the issue of whether George W. Bush ever used cocaine, it was journalists who made that the central campaign question of summer ’99, although some outlets tried to obscure their role (NBC kept calling it “the question that won’t go away”). Bush became the victim of a media in heat.

Initially only a few journalists, including columnist Molly Ivins and Newsweek‘s Stuart Taylor, bothered to point toward the relevant policy issue: Bush’s signing of the Texas law that made even first-time possession of small amounts of drugs punishable by prison time. The appropriate questions are ones targeting not private peccadilloes but public policy — should people less fortunate than Bush be learning from their youthful mistakes inside a jail cell?

No one championed the media’s correctness in pursuing the private drug use question more insistently than Gary Bauer, the Bush rival most identified with the Religious Right. During the Lewinsky furor, religious conservatives also defended the questioning of politicians about adultery. At times, mainstream media outlets and the Religious Right seem to operate as a tag team, both driven by a definition of “character” reduced to personal behavior.

In other (perhaps unconscious) teamwork, national media have benefited conservatives by exempting leading right-wing politicians from the kind of sex prying Democrats have been subjected to. Although columnist Maureen Dowd referred to Newt Gingrich’s extramarital affair during the impeachment drive as “an open secret,” the story was widely deemed off-limits. When Rep. Henry Hyde admitted to a long-term extramarital relationship, reporters became instant libertarians and buried the story beneath Hyde’s reference to a “youthful indiscretion.” Hyde was in his late 40s when his affair ended; Clinton was 50 when he broke off with Lewinsky. The political press corps is sometimes capable of restraint — but is it only out of fear of being denounced as “liberal”?

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely real restraint will prevail until somehow the tables are dramatically turned and top media professionals and owners — many with political influence greater than most public officials — find themselves being asked the same personal questions their outlets are increasingly willing to ask politicians. Privacy limits might seem worthy again if media figures themselves had to answer questions now deemed so enlightening on “character” or “judgment” or “integrity.”

Mr. Mogul, have you ever committed adultery? Ever lied about it, Mr. Anchor? Ever snorted cocaine, Ms. Editor?

A version of this appeared in Brill’s Content (11/99).