When Should the Media Hold Its Pen?

If it seems like newspapers have become more sensational and report more news with popular appeal like sex scandals, it is probably because this is in fact the case.  Like everything else, the principles of acceptable news reporting are evolving rapidly as the print media attempts to meet the competition of instant on-line news.

The internet is an “anything goes” environment where stories about elected officials can be posted without regard for truth.  Up to now, mainstream media has refrained from reporting unsupported allegations found on blogs and web sites until the information could be independently verified.  This is changing.

The evolving standard of news reporting has also changed to meet demand as mainstream media coverage of items once reserved for the tabloids has become the new normal.  However, these changes are not happening without thought, reflection and debate in journalism circles.

Last week, at least one political reporter, Nick Acocella at Politifax, refused to cover the salacious emails alleged to be written by Assemblyman Joe Cryan.  Politifax instead wrote the following:

If you’re looking for anything witty or profound or insightful about the Joe Cryan e-mail story, you’ll have to look elsewhere. We’re firm believers around here that the private lives of public people are quite simply none of our business.

The sensationalism surrounding Assemblyman Joe Cryan and Politifax’s response raises important questions about the media’s role in reporting on the private affairs of politicians. While these “scandals” are now front-page news, there was a time when reporters would hold their pens out of respect for the political office or the families of the politicians.

During much of his presidency, Franklin D. Roosevelt was confined to a wheelchair. However, the press followed an unwritten rule that any published photograph of FDR would feature him from the waist up. When President Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke that left him partially paralyzed, the press never reported the severity of his disability. In fact, they allowed him to remain out of the public spotlight for months.

The clearest example may be the extramarital affairs of Presidents John F. Kennedy and William J. Clinton. While rumors circulated that Kennedy was unfaithful and many journalists even had proof of his affairs, there was not one published report about the President’s sexual liaisons while he was in office. In contrast, Clinton’s indiscretions became a hot topic on cable television, talk radio, and the Internet. For the first time, the President’s sex life became front-page news.

Every profession in every era determines its own standards of acceptability which, in one way or another is market driven.  Ultimately, the consumer defines the market and standards change to meet it.  It will be interesting to gauge the consumer reaction to the Cryan emails.  Happily, so far that reaction has been mixed.

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Lyndhurst, N.J. based law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck.  He is also the editor of the Constitutional Law Reporter and Government and Law blogs.