Private Lives of Politicians Fair Game for Press

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Paul Babeu was accustomed to threats that would out him as a gay man from the time he was in the military to his campaign for Pinal County Sheriff.

“This is 20 plus years that I’ve had numerous people that would threaten this to me. To expose me, go to my chain of command even in the military and report this and have done so,” he said at the press conference where he publicly confirmed he was gay amidst allegations that he threatened to deport an ex-lover.

“It’s almost as if there is a relief today to be able to not be threatened. Because not only is that not fair and to define people along those personal, those very private parts of who they are that’s how I’ve lived my life and defined myself.”

But is it fair? Does the public have a right to know about a public figure’s private life?

Bart Wojdynski, an assistant professor of communication at Virginia Tech who has a Ph.D. in Mass Communication, recently co-authored an article in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics that explored what the public expectations were of the press when covering politician’s private lives.

 

The article did not address any rights issues but focused on the public’s expectations he said, noting the 2009 study was a follow up to a similar study published in 2001.

Wojdynski said the study reflected that the public’s expectation of media to cover politician’s indiscretions and personal lives has increased.

“Likewise a higher percentage of people think that this is important, that their fellow citizens are interested in this type of coverage, and a much higher percentage actually think it’s a responsibility of the news media to cover personal life issues of public leaders,” he said.

Dr. Eric Easton, the editor of the Journal of Media Law and Ethics and a law professor at the University Of Baltimore School Of Law, said he thought politicians and public personalities have a lesser expectation of privacy than private individuals.

“If they don’t understand it they are very naïve,” Easton said, who also noted this applies to individuals who go in to office at all levels of government, even at a local level.

According to Easton, politicians’ private lives can provide a certain amount of information about their public lives. If they run their private lives a certain way, there is a possibility they might bring their values to their public lives he said.

There are aspects of politicians’ private lives that are off limits, but it’s a difficult line to draw and needs to be done on a case to case basis, according to Easton. “Generally speaking any aspect of their private lives that has no value in assessing their public lives should probably be off limits.”

For example, the guidelines President Obama has put out regarding his children are quite reasonable said Easton. The children are off limits unless they are with Obama or if there is some surpassing news value.

Wojdynski said people are still interested in politician’s staff and families’ personal lives.

“We sort of live in a tabloid culture and people who are staffers in prominent campaigns or families of candidates become third tier celebrities at least at that point in time. I think people are certainly interested,” said Wojdynski.

However, Wojdynski also noted public interest in a politician’s family or staff members is subjective and wasn’t sure if it warranted the coverage.

“Candidate family members, especially non-immediate family members are private individuals, putting their laundry out in the air is probably something that some people would view as disrespectful to process,” he said.

According to Wojdynski, definitive statements on when and what caused the media to scrutinize and cover politician’s private lives can’t be made. “It’s a confluence of a number of causes. I think it sort of gradually occurred, clearly over the last 40 years,” he said.

Key moments that Wojdynski thought led to increased media scrutiny include Gary Hart’s presidential run in 1980, stories about Bill Clinton when he ran for office and the subsequent scandal with Monica Lewinsky.

Easton said whether or not more intense social issues create more public interest changes with the times. For example, if a politician revealed they were gay, Easton said he thought today it is of no particular public importance to most, even though in the past it might have caused more of a scandal.

“I think several other scholars have written that there seems to be a greater interest when the press can catch a politician that is the opposite of their public message their trying to project,” said Wojdynski. A politician being gay would probably be of interest to the public, but it particularly would be of interest if the politician campaigns on an anti-gay platform.

Wojdynski said the public takes the information and concludes how they would do in office. “If they’re a hypocrite on one issue it is likely that they will be dishonest about other issues.”

According to Easton, some segments of the press sensationalize everything they get their hands on. “A journalist has to ask the question is the information that a journalist learned a matter of legitimate public significance or not, if not it’s not a story, it’s not news,” Easton said.

Reporters and editors have to make ethical decisions on what to cover of a politician’s private life. Easton said he did not think law and government should not have a role in deciding what is covered.

Easton said the law has very little to say about public figures privacy rights. A politician’s private life is barely protected by the current state of tort law. The more public the figure, the less protection there is.

“Legally, the politician’s recourse is to sue the reporter in tort, and to sue under a tort called public disclosure of private facts and that tort carries with it a defense of newsworthiness,” Easton said.

According to Easton, almost everything a politician does is legally newsworthy regardless if it is ethical to cover. “Legally, it would be very hard for a politician to succeed; in fact it’s very hard for almost anyone to win that.”

Easton said he didn’t think society will ever go back to not caring about politicians’ private lives.

“I think that train has left the station already.”

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