by Wendy McElroy
As part of their rivalry for the Democratic Presidential nomination, Al Gore and Bill Bradley are vigorously smearing each other. And they still manage to be boring. Meanwhile, the media continues its marathon soul search over how to treat 'the candidates.' Should high journalistic standards be maintained, or is it open season on the private lives of politicians? I say start shooting.
It is not merely that I dislike, distrust and disbelieve anyone who seeks political office. I would extend privacy rights even to politicians were it not for two countervailing circumstances. First, they themselves violate privacy rights wholesale. They regulate virtually everything that peaceful people can do behind closed doors, from taking drugs to having sex. It is elitist hypocrisy for them to demand the privacy rights that they routinely deny to ordinary people. If a politician wishes me to respect his personal life, then he needs to respect mine.
Second, politicians themselves rush to thrust their families, military records, church attendance, pets... in short, the shiny parts of their personal lives, polished for the camera. The all-American image they eagerly convey is as important a credential as their voting record. And it deserves no more privacy. If a politician wishes to pull a protective veil over his marriage, then he shouldn't pose his wife in photo-opportunities.
The media has a moral responsibility to investigate the credentials presented by a politician, including his claim to being a 'family man.' Indeed, to broadcast a pre-packaged image without testing its veracity would be to function as a propaganda machine.
Journalists tend to eulogize the coverage of decades past. They look back wistfully to the days when President Kennedy's notorious adulteries received no comment from the press. I believe that silence was a breach of public trust. It is now common knowledge that J.F.K time-shared a mistress with a notorious Mafia leader. And, during the Cuban missile crisis, Americans had a right to know that the man with his finger on the button was addicted to drugs. No politician has more skillfully played the family card than Kennedy did, and it is outrageous that the media played along. Their silence enabled a fraud to be perpetrated upon the public.
Moreover, the media applies a double standard. If an ordinary Jane has fifteen minutes of fame, the press savages her privacy with wild abandon. Neighbors are interviewed, rumors are reported as fact, inaccuracies are left uncorrected. Certainly no remorse is expressed for savaging the lives of powerless people. Why should a politician receive more respect? Do only the powerful deserve fair treatment?
I applaud every journalist who treats the image presented by a politician as just another fact to verify before going to press.