Journalism Ethics: "About Politicians’ Private Lives" Michael Kinsley on extramarital activities

"Many years ago, when [Councilman] Ted Kennedy was challenging [Mayor] Jimmy Carter..., I quit my job ...in protest over the owner’s refusal to publish an article I had edited about ...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.)

...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.
...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:
...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.

...my belief was that what passed for high ethical standards -- not reporting on politicians’ private lives -- looked like a conspiracy to suppress useful information.

...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.

...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.

...So what’s the standard today?

And what should it be?

...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."

Michael Kinsley

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