Saturday, May 23, 2009

Drawing the line

The other night I attended a panel discussion at the Erie County Library on journalism and political scandals. It was called "Sex, Lies and the Smoking Gun: Politics and Journalism." I'd like to tell you that we journalists do this sort of thing all the time, sitting down to discuss the big issues in our profession. Actually, most are worried about feeding the news machine each day, and then dashing off to the golf course to work on their chipping.

You can get the idea of how the forum went by checking out Elmer Ploetz's blog. Elmer used to work with me at the News' sports department; now he worries about those big journalistic subjects as a teacher at Fredonia State.

The forum got a bit off the track at times; I'm still surprised, for example, that no one talked much about how the Internet has changed the rules of the game in covering public figures. I didn't have the chance to raise the one issue that makes me quiver these days.

Where's the line?

As in, what's fair game? Is anything that a relatively public figure does worthy of being put in headlines somewhere? Doesn't entry in public life mean your entire life is worthy of inspection, or is there a right to privacy in some areas?

I used to think that breaking the law was a pretty good way of determining where the line was. You get a mugshot taken, you take your chances in the media. Once Senator Larry Craig got arrested for soliciting in a Minnesota airport men's room, it was clearly time for him to take the heat.

Now the line has gone a few steps farther, but it's tough to find where it is. For example, I don't know where Bill Clinton's "situation" with Monica Lewinsky fits in during such a discussion. If Clinton did commit perjury about the relationship, it's newsworthy, although in hindsight the whole matter (impreachment trial, etc.) doesn't seem like one of our finer moments.

We can throw in items from the Internet to the discussion here too. If sites put up charges without a great deal of attribution (and the same applies to comments on talk radio), do mainstream outlets have a responsibility to follow up and print/broadcast those charges, just because they are out there? I've seen it happen.

Then we get into the even trickier cases. John Edwards' affair might have led no further than a screaming match with his wife in different times. He eventually went public with material that could have been quite private. Yet I'm not going to deny that the insight the issue uncovered in Edwards' character was quite valuable, and he deserved to have his political career come to a screeching halt at that exact moment.

Heck, newspapers printed a story in sports sections on the DUI arrest of Scott Favre. He was the brother of that former/current/future NFL quarterback, Brett Favre. Think his name would be in the paper if his name were Scott Johnson? Is that fair to Scott or Brett?

The easy cliche for such discussions is that we have to consider these stories on a case-by-case basis, and we have to be very, very careful. That cliche is true. There sure are a lot of trapped doors out there, just waiting to be sprung.

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