Redefining the `Private Lives' of Public Officials: Women Journalists Have Played a Major Role in This Changing Coverage. (Women: United States).(Column)

Article excerpt

For some journalists--especially those with old-guard thinking--the September 11 World Trade Center attacks that led to aggressive reporting on Osama bin Laden and bioterrorism brought an oddly welcomed relief. Then Enron followed. Finally, there was a return to "real reporting," and "important journalism." No longer was there a focus on "tabloid stories" such as Gary Condit and the missing Chandra Levy and whatever they were doing in private that dominated some news outlets before the 11th. No more messy tales about Bill Clinton and Paula Jones or Monica Lewinsky. In their minds, at least, no more voyeuristic reporting on the so-called "private lives" of public officials.

Of course, for some media organizations, especially the supermarket tabloids and some cable news networks, there's no question that a primary attraction in these stories was the sure-to-boost ratings combination of sex, power, fame and mystery. This is inevitable when the story involves an emotion and instinct as powerful, mysterious and easily exploited as sex. But even though the media sometimes report gratuitous stories involving sex--something I regard as unethical--we should not forget why some aspects of what for decades the press has defined as the "private lives" of public officials, when reported responsibly, are not only of legitimate public interest but also important to pursue and publish.

Unfortunately, this is not the message some influential media commentators seem to be sending. In the wake of the Monica experience, for example, historian and former presidential assistant Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Washington Post columnist David Broder each have warned journalists about invading the "private lives" of public officials. "[N]othing seems to bother people more about today's journalism than the blurring of lines between the public records of candidates and their private lives," Broder wrote. And in a New York Times op-ed, Schlesinger posited that "Reporters seem obsessively interested these days in getting candidates to tell all" about various aspects of their private lives including, he says, "their sex lives." In arguing for tighter guidelines, he wrote that "A measure of privacy is of estimable value in protecting the stability and sanity of our public servants."

Public officials, like private individuals, deserve a zone of privacy. On that point there is little debate. However, far too often those urging privacy suggest that all stories with a sexual angle are, by definition, about a public official's private life. Although it perhaps should seem obvious by now, some critics still fail to fully recognize that even if an abusive sexual act is committed in private--meaning no witnesses, or in what traditionally has been considered a person's private realm--it still may be of legitimate public concern as a potential violation of law or ethical standards. Some exhortations for privacy also suggest that the way a politician (usually these stories involve males) treats women (or men) has no relevance to his fitness for office.

Before this kind of backlash thinking takes hold, it is important to reflect on how and why perceptions about what should or shouldn't be considered publicly relevant sexual behavior have changed during the past 30 years. It remains very rare for a journalist to ask about a politician's truly private sex life, as it should be. However, thanks in part to the increased presence of women as both reporters and editors, particularly political journalists, 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. This reassessment has been part of evolving changes in society, which for centuries had been conditioned to believe--based on Aristotle's conception of the private and public spheres--that anything involving women (considered a lesser order) or sex (even abusive sex)--belonged in the private realm. …