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Guest Commentary

When is gossip news?

Gary Hart and friend in '87.
AP photo

If you are not among the 15 million who visited Matt Drudge’s Web site recently maybe you haven’t heard the allegation that Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry has an “intern problem.”

It turns out the term “bimbo eruption” was not retired along with the Clinton White House china pattern. If the heavy traffic on Matt Drudge’s site is any indication, Americans still love a good political sex scandal despite all the criticism the media received for gleefully rolling around in the Lewinsky affair.

Kathryn Wallace

This puts the media in a bit of a quandary. First and foremost the news industry is a moneymaking venture and even the highbrow press has a financial incentive to print juicy gossip. But traditional journalism requires facts and sources, both of which are absent (so far) in the Kerry allegation.

Both Kerry and the suspected “intern” -- an Associated Press reporter supposedly courted at one point for a job on the Kerry campaign -- flatly deny the allegation. The woman is now living with her fiancee in Kenya, and both she and her parents have gone on the record denying the rumors and even throwing in their support for the Kerry candidacy.

But without any corroborating witnesses or evidence, the story lives on. The “respectable” press has found a way around the facts. The San Jose Mercury News covered it in a slightly hypothetical, hypocritical look at the role of the press, with a come-on to the audience: Do you want us to talk about this? C’mon. Give us a reason. (Of course, I'm doing something similar in this column.)

Should gossip ever be news?

Should gossip ever be news? How much does a person’s private life figure into his or her public role? These are old questions that seem to get fresh answers every few years, based not on journalistic ethics but on the public’s appetite for scandal.

Currently the press enjoys wide range in reporting. Court decisions have reduced the privacy rights of those who place themselves in the public eye -- such as politicians -- below those of average citizens. Those rulings stretched to the bedroom with the presidential race of 1988 and Democratic presidential contender, Colorado Sen. Gary Hart. The story that ran in the Miami Herald in 1987 was prompted by an ill-advised boast Hart made to the media to counter whispers of womanizing. Follow me around; it will be boring, he said, daring reporters.

Reporters took the dare, and soon Hart’s dirty secrets were splashed all over the newspapers coupled with a photo of a smiling woman (not his wife) sitting on his lap aboard the yacht, “Monkey Business.” It was a career-ending image. Thus also ended the “gentlemen’s agreement” between politicians and the press to ignore infidelities with a wink and smile. JFK benefited from this agreement but no other politician after Hart would.

President George H. W. Bush got his grilling in the next election in 1991. A rumor of a Bush affair was sparked by a footnote in a book by Susan Trento, wife of CNN reporter James Trento. The note was from an interview with a long-dead ambassador who claimed to have arranged for a tryst in 1984 between Bush and a staffer.

The press picked up the tidbit with gusto; CNN's White House correspondent confronted President Bush as he hosted Israeli Prime Minister in the Oval Office. Newspapers carried the story on their front pages, creating Sunday morning talk show fodder.

Interestingly, Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, who decried both the Clinton sex scandal and now the Kerry story as “sleazy reporting,” actually supported the investigation of Bush Sr. saying, “In this situation, the Oval Office isn't a temple. The president is a candidate and he has to be asked tough, often distasteful, but nonetheless important kinds of questions."

When is a candidate's sex life legitimate news?

Partisanship aside, Alter poses the million-dollar question for editors who are empowered to report the news (whatever THAT is) and act as the “watchdog” of our government: When is sex an “important” question?

So far the mainstream press has kept the Kerry question off the front pages for reasons of taste and journalistic ethics, ironically fueling charges of a “media cover-up.” But as editors watch the rising sales of the smaller papers running the rumor as a news story in the public interest, the reluctance to keep the story quiet may be losing out to the desire to make a buck.

So ultimately the public decides the standards. If newspaper sales didn’t jump through the roof during the Lewinsky mess, that story would have died out much sooner.

I don’t believe sex is ever an important question unless, like in the affair between JFK and a mob boss’s girlfriend, national security is in jeopardy. Otherwise I’d like to keep private parts private.

Unfortunately, the public’s apparently insatiable interest in sex and politics will undermine any media attempts to “keep it clean.” The questions gossip poses are now answered with the dollar rather than a set of standards. The media’s coverage of public issues is decided almost completely by what consumers want to know. That is a sad commentary when the public chooses salacious gossip over, say, a war in Iraq.

Kathryn Wallace is a master's student in the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University. An earlier version of this commentary appeared in the Stanford Daily.

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