Many years ago, when Senator Ted Kennedy was challenging President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination, I quit my job at a national magazine in protest over the owner’s refusal to publish an article I had edited about the senator’s extramarital activities.
At that time, there was a general consensus among Washington journalists that one didn’t do that sort of thing. (“That sort of thing” being reporting on politicians’ extramarital affairs. Having the affairs was OK.)
The article, which was eventually published in another magazine, didn’t discuss any actual affairs or name any names. It was an essay-argument that this kind of behavior was relevant to the citizens’ job of assessing the candidates, and that messing around by a married male politician reflected badly on that politician’s attitude toward women and, by extension, people in general. It suggested that he was willing to use people in a cavalier way.
The general rule at that time was that you shouldn’t write about a person’s private life. (The question whether the rule applied if the person volunteered information didn’t arise. Public confessions by celebrities and politicians didn’t become fashionable — and then routine — until later.) This was because marital infidelity was held to have nothing to do with how a politician did his job. The truth, though, was nearly the opposite: Yes, journalists thought that marital infidelity shouldn’t affect your assessment of a politician, but their motivation for not writing about it was concern that the voters might not be as enlightened. Voters could not be trusted with the information that their elected representative was sleeping around — they might wrongly hold it against him — so journalists kept it from them for their own good.
Elitism and Bias
This is just the kind of Washington elitism and bias that Newt Gingrich complains about so eloquently. And thank goodness someone is speaking out about … oh, wait. Never mind.
Anyway, my belief was that what passed for high ethical standards — not reporting on politicians’ private lives — looked like a conspiracy to suppress useful information. I also thought that politicians didn’t really try to keep their private lives private. (Our current president and his predecessor, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, have tried a lot harder.) Politicians didn’t mind posing for the cameras with their families coming out of church. They just didn’t want to be photographed with their mistresses coming out of a bar.
Then there was the fact that only rarely did journalists actually keep this private information about politicians private. They didn’t report it to their readers or viewers, but they generally couldn’t resist retailing these stories to colleagues until the tales gradually but inevitably became common knowledge among journalists, though still unknown by most of the public.
My bottom line: A politician’s so-called private life was fair game to the extent that your readers or your audience found it politically relevant. Not just interesting. Of course gossip is interesting. You had to believe that this information could affect how a significant fraction of the public would vote. You’d have to guess, naturally, but an honest guess would be that most people would hold adultery against a candidate. Therefore they had a right to know if the candidate was an adulterer, or a heavy drinker, or had similar private failings.
A lot of water over the dam since then. Kennedy divorced, settled down, remarried and eventually passed away. We’ve been through Gary Hart and Monkey Business, Monica Lewinsky, any number of obscure congressmen hustled quickly offstage by their party leadership, Senator Larry Craig (he of the “wide stance” at Minneapolis airport), and rococo variations like Representative Anthony Weiner, the Twitter flasher.
Race to Bottom
So what’s the standard today? And what should it be? The Internet virtually guarantees that any gamey information about a politician will probably come out. It has accelerated the so- called race to the bottom: Even if a news outlet makes a decision to suppress some information, less scrupulous competitors make that impossible. (The Washington Post once declared in an editorial that, while it didn’t report news based on rumors, sometimes the existence of a rumor, true or not, was itself news. This got the Post in tremendous trouble, but it’s actually quite true.)
What has changed since 1980 is my basic premise: that many voters — enough to matter — would find information about a politician’s private (i.e., sex) life politically relevant. Many, probably most, don’t. It turns out that the real sophisticates here are the voters. It’s the journalists who are prudes. I’m not saying this is a good thing. But it does change the equation.
When even evangelical Christians are willing to overlook a politician’s three marriages spiced with open adultery as long as he’s good on school prayer, we clearly have moved to a new point in this ongoing discussion.