In recent days John Edwards has admitted to an extra-marital affair, Jon Corzine has gone to court to keep E-mails he exchanged with a former girlfriend and state-workers union leader private, and a judge issued a decision in the very public divorce trial of former Governor Jim McGreevey. When it comes to media coverage, how do we draw a dividing line between reporting that is relevant, important, and legitimate and that which is sensational and voyeuristic?

Hall Institute Communications Director Richard A. Lee explored this issue last year in a presentation at a conference sponsored by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. For the full text see Lee’s blog at the Hall Institute website, www.hallnj.org. An excerpt appears below:

For politicians today words such as “personal” and “private” are no longer a part of the job description. And despite its increased reporting on the personal lives of public figures, the media also has failed to recognize the reality of life in the 21st century. Guidelines developed to govern such coverage generally indicate that it is acceptable to delve into a politician’s personal life if and when it has a bearing on public policy. While the intent is laudable, such guidelines are vague and arbitrary. They can be – and have been – interpreted to include almost any circumstance.

We now live in an era of “wolfpack” journalism in which anything goes. There are no secrets. The personal information that appears in the mainstream media, while it is more extensive and detailed than ever, is just the tip of the iceberg. More intimate details are readily available on websites, blogs, and chatrooms that provide additional (and increasingly popular) alternatives to the mainstream media. Tabloids and entertainment “news” shows thrive on reports on the personal lives of public figures, frequently forcing the mainstream media to pick up on such stories for fear of being scooped by a mainstream competitor.

“For higher-minded news organizations wishing to maintain their standards, the choices are limited,” said Christopher Hanson. “Ignoring a story they do not deem relevant is an option in theory, but difficult in practice.” Even if a news organization chooses to provide a sanitized version of a story, the likely effect is to drive readers/viewers to a competitor for the missing details, he said. “With each successive sex story, it becomes easier to maneuver serious reporters into covering what many doubt is a legitimate story,” he explained.

“Editors and news directors have lost control,” said John Seigenthaler, chairman of the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. “They have surrendered — perhaps without realizing it — their age-old ability to serve as the monitors and ultimate gatekeepers on what makes the newspaper or the evening news.”

Instead, it is the pressure of garnering the widest possible audience that drives decisions on news content, according to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. “Enslaved by audience ratings, television imposes market pressures on the supposedly free and enlightened consumer,” Bourdieu wrote in On Television. “These pressures have nothing to do with the democratic expression of enlightened public opinion or public rationality.”

Whether it is journalism or any other subject, it is usually difficult if not impossible to pinpoint the start of a trend such as “wolfpack” journalism. However, there always are benchmarks and, for this new era in American journalism, the case of presidential aspirant Gary Hart is a good place to start. “Self-imposed restraints began to break down after the Kennedy administration, as the relationship between the news media and the presidency became increasingly contentious during the Vietnam conflict and Watergate. The breakdown was complete after Gary Hart,” Sigman Splichal and Bruce Garrison wrote in an article for the Journal of Mass Media Ethics.

In 1987 Hart, a former U.S. Senator from Colorado, was the frontrunner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination. At the time, he said he did not care if the press scrutinized his private life and actually challenged reporters to follow his every move. The Miami Herald accepted and discovered that Hart, who was married, had spent two days on a yacht with a female model. After the story appeared in the Herald, and then was followed by virtually every American news outlet, Hart dropped out of the race.

This type of story was “uncharted territory” for the American press, according to Village Voice political commentator Rick Perlstein, who wrote about the incident for Columbia Journalism Review. Polls conducted shortly after the story was published showed that two thirds or more of the public felt the press had no business reporting on candidates’ sex lives. Journalists, however, felt the story was a legitimate one because it underscored questions that had been raised about Hart’s character. Earlier news reports had disclosed the facts that Hart changed his name from “Hartpence” and that he claimed to be a year younger than he was.

The Gary Hart episode spawned much journalistic soul-searching about the proper bounds of reporting on the private lives of candidates and politicians. “But, in the end, journalistic consensus appeared to vindicate the Herald,” Splichal and Garrison said. “Indeed the news media had crossed a threshold, to which they have not retreated.”

Indeed, after crossing this threshold, the press became more aggressive in its reporting on the private lives of public officials. Reporters scrutinized Hart’s personal life after he challenged them to do so. In the era of wolfpack journalism, reporters no longer waited for such invitations. The case of Arthur Ashe broke down even more barriers in the practice of reporting on the private lives of public figures. Ashe, one of the best know tennis players in the world, was infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, during brain surgery in 1988. Ashe chose not to disclose the ailment, but in 1993 when he learned that USA Today was about to run a story reporting that he had AIDS, he quickly called a news conference to make the announcement himself.

Like the Gary Hart case, public response to USA Today’s role in forcing the announcement was negative, but once again the press justified its actions by pointing to the resulting public good. “Ashe’s greatest legacy might be the dignity he displayed as was dying from AIDS and his ability to convince many who were reluctant to regard this disease as a public health issue to view it as such,” sports reporter Tom Witosky wrote in an article for Nieman Reports. “Ashe forced powerful people, including then-President George Bush, into looking at the disease as something other than the ‘gay plague.’ It is worth asking whether any of this would have happened had USA Today not pushed Ashe into a situation in which he disclosed his illness.”

In the ensuing years, the trend continued. Sometimes the reports were justified by journalists as being for the greater public good. Other times there appeared to be no reason for the disclosure other than sensationalism or fear of being scooped. For example, in 1991, allegations of sexual harassment against then-U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas led to widely reported personal disclosures about the judge, including the fact that he had rented X-rated videos. Thomas ultimately was confirmed, but the publicity of the sexual harassment charges resulted in greater public awareness of the issue, as well as new laws and employee education programs aimed at reducing the practice.

Likewise, the Washington Post in 1992 reported detailed allegations of sexual misconduct by Oregon Senator Bob Packwood, who eventually was forced to resign. “At issue was abuse of power, an ethical issue,” said Florence George Graves, one of the reporters who broke the story. In contrast, it is difficult to imagine what greater public good was achieved in 1991 when mainstream media outlets departed from the long-standing policy of keeping the names of sexual assault victims private and disclosed the identity of the woman who accused William Kennedy Smith of rape.

Clearly, this trend in reporting set the stage for the salacious details of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky affair that would find their way into family living rooms via daily newspapers and the nightly news in 1998. However, it was not the only factor responsible for the birth and growth of wolfpackjournalism. A series of developments combined to form a “perfect storm” that created an environment in which the distinction between the private and public lives of public figures disappeared:

1. Libel Laws. Laws and court decisions have made it more difficult to successfully sue news entities for libel. As a result, journalists can delve into the private lives of public officials with little fear that they and/or their news organizations will be forced to pay huge settlements to litigants.

2. The Rise of Television. The popularity of television has made politics more personal, providing citizens with a greater sense of candidates and politicians as people. This brings the next step – the one that in which reporters delve into politicians’ private lives.

3. Negative Advertising. The increase in negative advertising, much of which contains personal attacks, has primed the press and the public to expect similar information in news stories. In addition, the growth of the Internet and new public disclosure laws have made it easier to obtain personal information for opposition research, which has become a vital element of all major political campaigns.

4. Lack of Issues. A lack of issues and/or the absence of substantive differences on the issues have turned campaigns into debates over character. This in turn has driven reporters to spend more time investigating candidates’ personal issues.

5. Electronic News Sources. Due to the proliferation of websites and blogs, personal information that is unreported by traditional media entities because it is too sensitive or controversial, or even unsubstantiated, is readily available to the public. “Online political discussion groups such as newsgroups, chat rooms, E-mail, and blogs are a new force in American politics,” Richard Davis wrote in Politics Online: Blogs, Chatrooms, and Discussion Groups in American Democracy. “The sheer volume of postings on the over 50,000 newsgroups, 70,000 public E-mail lists, thousands of blogs, and hundreds of chat rooms on any given day is overwhelming.”

6. Blurred Lines. The growing popularity of tabloid newspapers and entertainment “news” shows has blurred the line between news and entertainment, as well as the line between public and private lives. Geoffrey Baym makes this argument in an article he wrote about the “The Daily Show” for Political Communication. “In an age of cultural diversity, the media environment has become defined by blurred borders,” Baym wrote. “The metaphoric wall between the editorial and business side of news has dissolved, as have any clear distinctions between the public and private spheres, public affairs and popular culture, and information and entertainment.”

7. Changing Standards. More liberal standards and understanding of sex, substance abuse, mental illness, etc., have muted the impact of personal revelations on such subjects, making it more acceptable for reporters to touch upon these and other personal topics.

8. The Influence of Women. The number of female reporters and editors has increased substantially, leading to changes in the types of issues that are covered. “Media decision-makers are finally asking whether particular allegations of inappropriate or abusive sexual behavior — the kind that was well known in the past by some reporters but kept from readers and viewers — merit journalistic scrutiny,” Florence Graves wrote in her article about uncovering the Packwood story. Likewise, increases in the number of women running for — and winning — political office has led to the inclusion of more personal information in some television advertisements to counter criticism that they have abandoned their traditional family roles by seeking entry into the male-dominated world of politics.

9. Using Family Works Both Ways. Politicians of both sexes are making increased use of their families to create warm, fuzzy images in the minds of constituents, justifying – in the minds of journalists – questions about personal issues. “So what’s the message: My private life is fair game when it might score me political points but off-limits when it’s convenient?” Rem Reider asked in his editor’s column in American Journalism Review.

10. Fear of Terrorism. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, created a new awareness of the threat of domestic terrorism, the government was given broad powers over personal privacy through laws such as the Patriot’s Act. This further diminished the impact of releasing personal information, especially when done purportedly to thwart terrorism.

With the advent of wolfpackjournalism and all of the factors that helped spawn it, the distinction between frontstage and backstage has virtually been eliminated. Comments made in “off-the-record” conversations have a way of making it into print, especially if they have elements of sensationalism and controversy. Cameras and microphones capture politicians at candid moments, often unaware or oblivious to the fact that they are being recorded.

Wolfpack journalism has eliminated the distinction between the public and private lives of public figures. As I suggested earlier, once this development is accepted, there are potential benefits.

For example, voters value authenticity in public officials, as demonstrated by their support for Bill Clinton. Although focus groups conducted during the primary for the 1992 presidential showed that voters accurately characterized Clinton as a womanizer, he won the nomination as well as the presidency. Even after intimate details of his sexual encounters were made public during his second term, Clinton remained a popular and effective leader. Voters apparently valued the fact that he was authentic (if not a personal role model). Unlike other politicians, what one saw of Bill Clinton was the real thing, warts and all. His backstage and frontstage personalities were the same.

Politicians seeking success in the era of wolfpack journalism can learn a lesson from Clinton’s experience. Today’s voters have the ability to view activities that traditionally have been backstage and off-limits, and to then use that information to make judgments.

The result would be an electorate that is better informed and educated on the true character of candidates and politicians. At the same time, candidates would be more authentic and possibly less apt to engage in unsavory backstage activities because, for all practical purposes, the backstage sphere has been eliminated, effectively making all of their activities frontstage. (Although in Clinton’s case, where authenticity apparently trumped his less admirable traits, it is likely that future candidates and office-holders would seek to avoid the levels of personal scrutiny that to which Clinton was subjected.)

In general, politicians would begin to realize that there are public repercussions to actions they consider private. As a corollary benefit, the elimination of the public/private distinction would lessen the shock value of disclosures of marital infidelity, past drug use, and the like.

To a certain extent, this has already occurred. For example, during the 1996 presidential campaign, many major news organizations declined to run stories about an affair that Bob Dole had had in the late 1960s, even though they had confirmation that the story was accurate and Dole never denied it, according to Susan Paterno, who wrote a piece about the “non coverage” for American Journalism Review. In the article, she quotes several editors who described the story as irrelevant to the presidential campaign. “The same sort of story had ended Gary Hart’s political career and had nearly derailed Bill Clinton,” Paterno wrote. “But Dole was spared.”

Debate and discussion over the distinction between the private and public lives of public figures is not a new issue. As we have seen, the controversy has a history as long as our nation’s. What is new is the breakdown of that distinction. While readers may differ with my theory that the breakdown is complete, it would be difficult not to acknowledge that — at a minimum — the public/private distinction has been largely reduced and continues to diminish.

I suggest that acknowledgement and recognition of this trend is a positive thing that should be encouraged. Politicians, the press, and the public would be well-served by learning to live and work constructively within this new environment, rather than debate the pros and cons of an issue that has become moot. Only by recognizing the realities of the relationships among politicians, the press, and the public in the 21st Century can we hope to strengthen democracy.

The Hall Institute of Public Policy – New Jersey is a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization that explores issues of social, economic, educational and cultural importance to the Garden State. For more information, visit the Hall Institute online at www.hallnj.org or E-mail info@hallnj.org.

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