When Publicity-Mongers Seek Privacy

By Sydney H. Schanberg

First published in Newsday, March 6, 1990

Having been away a while and out of touch, I’ve had a lot of catching up on the news to do.

When I departed for Asia last summer, the “Evil Empire” was still intact; now the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself are running toward free enterprise and away from state communism as fast as they can. South Africa, too, has been turned almost upside down, with Nelson Mandela finally freed and apartheid crumbling.

Here at home, the money world witnessed The Fall of the House of Drexel, but only after the elders of the junk-bond house parachuted safely to earth with self-awarded multimillion-dollar bonuses. In more serious belly-up news, major banks in the savings and loan community have been going under, the megabillion losses to be underwritten by the taxpayer (The CIA, as a siphoner of loans for covert activities, was apparently a player in this crash.)

In New York, other covert activities were uncovered, these perpetrated by U.S. Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, our peddler of influence extraordinaire, who after so many years of free rides seems now to be sinking under the weight of multiple investigations. And, yes, before I forget, Andy Rooney came back, some think with his genes watered down.

But by far the biggest news in this city that believes it defines America has been the Trump saga. The divorce of the century. Relentless hours of air time and thousands of column inches of print, and we’re only just beginning. New Yorkers know what’s important. The Trumps are us.

And beware of those who tell you they are neither following the tawdry tale nor talking about it at the dinner table. Their noses may be growing. The fascination is fairly universal. And it is definitely selling newspapers.

My bet for the most profitable headline was the banner in the New York Post on Feb. 16, which purported to be a quote from Marla Maples, the Other Woman. She was said to have enthused to her friends about Donald Trump in the following way: “Best Sex I’ve Ever Had.”

Which brings us to one of the few non-trivial issues generated by this hair-pulling contest: the question of whether the Trumps are entitled to the customary rights of privacy.

Of course, the customary rights in this country don’t extend very far any more, given the boom in the gossip industry. Even so, I have always argued, as with the Gary Hart episode, that the private lives of public figures are not the business of the press unless we can demonstrate that the personal activity has a clear bearing on the public performance. Part of this argument is that since the media have as much effect on public policy as do elected officials and other power wielders, do we in the press agree that our private lives are fair game for someone else’s scrutiny? 

My position hasn’t changed. So where does that put me on the Trump issue? Do Donald and Ivana — and Marla — come under the protection of the Schanberg rule? The answer is yes, but.

The problem in the Trump case is that Donald in particular but Ivana as well have conducted their lives via neon announcements to the world — by writing their names in the sky, so to speak. Nothing is built or purchased that is not immediately plastered with the family name — Trump Tower, Trump Castle (the casino), Trump Princess (the yacht), TrumpShuttle (the airline), Tour de Trump (the bicycle race) et cetera, et cetera. Press conferences are called to proclaim every deal, every prize-fight promotion, every new toy. Lots of climbers are tacky but none have been so determinedly public in their tackiness as the Trumps. They became the Royal Family of High Tack.

The Schanberg rule is not absolutist. It is very hard to argue in defense of the privacy of people who have invited us to worship their treasure, who have insisted that we photograph them at every turn, who have asked us into their many homes to gaze at the limits of ostentation to which they have pushed their decorators. When people shout “Look at us! Look at us!” for years on end, can they expect the world to stop looking just because something awkward or embarrassing happens in their personal lives?

Even in their break-up, the Trumps waged a public, not private, battle. Each hired shark lawyers skilled at manipulating the press, each sought out a gossip columnist of choice, each set in play their public-relations men to smash and trash the other. (It was Scanlon for Ivana and Rubenstein for Donald. As the PR dirt flew, it blurred and became indistinguishable, one side from the other. In my mind, a la Watergate, it became a single public-relations entity — the Scanstein team.)

Still, the press clearly went too far on several occasions (as with the “Best Sex” and other stories). No matter how outrageously public the Trumps have ever been, we, often with relish, stepped over that line of good taste that most of us are so fond of trumpeting as our ethic.

Donald complained bitterly that the coverage had been excessive and called it “sick.” He, of course, wanted it both ways — megacoverage when he was on one of his ego trips but press discretion and restraint when he found himself in distress. His double standard, however, does not excuse ours.

 

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