Here’s a Good Guide for Covering Candidates

By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, September 22, 1987

Joseph Biden’s fall from grace over plagiarism has renewed the character-integrity judgement issue that earlier occupied us in Gary Hart’s fall over sex.

Biden’s case differs in that, for good reason, it has not generated in the press the self-examination and self-defensiveness that grew out of Hart’s. The explanation for this is that looking in to plagiarism requires of journalists only their traditional information-gathering skills, not the voyeurism required for looking into bedroom windows.

But the Biden situation has nonetheless called attention again to the press’s role in the coverage of politics — particularly presidential politics — and to the question of how intrusive our examination of candidates should
be. Though we are no longer watching it on prime time, the debate continues inside press circles over the issues raised by Hart’s “womanizing” and our coverage of it.

At bottom, the discussion has very little to do with either Gary Hart or The Miami Herald, the paper that broke the story, but rather with whether all of us, not just the press, wish to accept the “New Rules.” These rules say, basically, that nothing can be private in the life of a person who seeks the nation’s highest office. Put another way, the New Rules
dictate that the public must know every last candidate’s every last blemish, even if it dates from high school or college days, because the person who is going to have his/her finger on the nuclear button has to be remarkably stable and mature and not given to fudging the truth.

On paper, this certainly has the ring of soundness — but not of real life. We all know that in real life, some things, such as excessive drinking, affect stability and some things, such as fudging the truth about one’s sexual conduct, may not.

The “Old Rules” — which were flawed, too — said that unless the press could demonstrate that the private life of a politician or government official had interfered with the performance of his public office, it wasn’t a story. Sometimes we in the press used the Old Rules as an apron to hide behind — occasions when the public performance was clearly affected but we were uncomfortable with the prospect of writing about such personal matters as sex and alcoholism.

Wilbur Mills (D-Ark., served 1939-1976) and Mendel Rivers (D-S.C., served 1941-1970) come to mind as powerful congressional figures whose heavy drinking clearly impaired their ability to function but went unreported for the longest time. And the sexual wanderings outside marriage of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were anything but a secret to a White House press corps that chose silence on these matters.Was that all bad, that unease on the press’s part with doing stories about conduct that had traditionally been deemed private? I would say, not necessarily.

Take the Gary Hart case. A lot of reporters, when asked if they would volunteer for an assignment to stake out the home of a public figure for the purpose of discovering marital infidelity, will tell you they’d rather not do it themselves, but if some other reporter does it and produces the story, it’s valid journalism. That rings alarm bells for me. Journalists would rather not do it themselves, this means they feel something shabby, or at least alien, about it. Which in turn means that I don’t think we’re quite ready for the New Rules yet. We’re going to first have to thrash out whether the feelings of shabbiness is appropriate and justified or whether it stems instead from some kind of unspoken gentleman’s agreement or just plain timidity.

An argument has been made that the Old Rules evolved because the journalistic community over the years grew cozy with the political community it was covering — and not only cozy, but also protective because the journalists, predominantly male, came to identify with the pols’ peccadilloes as shared experiences. Boys will be boys in the locker room.

There is a level of truth in this, but it does not automatically follow that in rejecting this old relationship we must then leap into the New Rules and begin surveillance on everyone’s sex life. We might, with such a leap, give the public new insights into the lives of political wives, the smiling, cardboard roles expected of them, the mortifications some of them endure (or choose to endure). But we would lose much more than we would gain, for we could end up pandering to America’s streak of prurience and preoccupation with sex.

For all of its imperfections, I remain comfortable with the standard my generation was trained by: You write about someone’s sex life when you can establish by empiric evidence, not by interference, that it has impaired his or her public performance.

It’s not an absolutist standard, just as sound guideline. From time to time, exceptions may occur — special circumstances that might compel us into print. Infidelity should not be on some sacred cow list of subjects
exempt from coverage. What we want to avoid is the opposite — that is, moving infidelity into the must-cover category. For then, the New Rules would become our categorical imperative, and sexual behavior would be the primary standard
for judging character and integrity.

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