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In Politics, Should Private Affairs Become Public Issues?


Shining spotlights into the personal lives of politicians has become a standard practice in the U.S. news media in recent decades. That probing coverage – with its tendency toward invasions of privacy – has prompted calls this election season for reporters to keep their prying noses out of a candidate's home life. But, some media experts think that might not be possible. VOA's Faiza Elmasry reports.

When Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin burst onto the national scene as the running mate of Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, most Americans knew very little about her. But after weeks of intense news media coverage, Palin has become a well-known political figure.

"She has pursued a social conservative agenda for all of her political career, one which emphasizes family values," says Steve Haycox, history and geography professor at the University of Alaska.

He says Palin did not venture into the media spotlight alone. Her family did too, especially her teen daughter, Bristol.

"There was considerable discussion of her daughter's unwed pregnancy at 17 years old, but now I notice that that's quieted down," Haycox says.

Probing candidates' personal lives has been a staple of American political campaign coverage for decades. Haycox says this probing had a major impact, for example, on the outcome of the 1988 presidential campaign:

"When [Democrat] Gary Hart was running for president a couple of cycles ago [1987]," he says, "he had not been completely forthright about several extramarital affairs that he had engaged in. For some reason, the media really focused on that."

Tom Fiedler was a reporter with The Miami Herald, the newspaper that first exposed Sen. Hart's extramarital affair.

"We felt that this was an issue that was relevant to the campaign, and it was important for us to pursue," he says. "Sen. Hart had been asked, prior to our getting involved in this, questions about whether he had been engaged with these kinds of adventures. He had denied them. He had said that if there had been any truth to these rumors, then he certainly would have been discovered long before the presidential campaign.

"He told one interviewer that if the reporters didn't believe [him], he said, 'You can follow me. You'll be bored.' Our feeling at that point was that this was not necessarily a question of privacy. This was an issue of credibility and perhaps hypocrisy."

Fiedler, now dean of Boston University's College of Communication, says sometimes reporting on an elected official's personal affairs can help voters evaluate the candidate's personality and credibility.

"I think the first question that a journalist needs to be able to answer is, is there a public need to know? Is there a public policy reason why that private behavior should be reported on?" Fiedler says. "And if you can't answer that, if there is no justification for that, then I think that the curtain of privacy should remain closed."

Fiedler believes the children of prominent politicians are also entitled to privacy, but he notes that this rule has an exception. That's when the person seeking or holding public office uses his or her family for political advantage, for example, by posing with them for the media or parading them publicly to demonstrate the solidity of the politician's family values.

"In other words, if a politician brings the family into the spotlight with him or her, doing so, I believe, opens that curtain," he says. "And in Gov. Palin's case, it was Gov. Palin who brought her daughter and her daughter's pregnancy to the public eye. This wasn't the media that initiated the story. She brought it to Sen. McCain's attention. The governor herself brought her family into the spotlight. I think at that point, the media can report on it, but one hopes that the media does it with sensitivity and with proportion to the issue at stake."

Some experts predict that political reporting in the future will be even more aggressive than it is today. Historian Steve Haycox says that's due, in part, to the lack of self-imposed regulations, which news organizations used to enforce in the past.

"The great example in American history is Franklin Roosevelt," he says. "The press was very careful not to focus on his inability to walk. So you didn't see very often photographs of him with his crutches, photographs of people helping him to a podium. That was all self-regulating. Now that, in a sense, the box is open, I don't know how you get media to go back to a self-regulating line."

That's a concern shared by Boston University Communications Dean Tom Fiedler. He says the changing nature of the media landscape itself makes it impossible to keep private matters private anymore.

"The explosion of media outlets in recent years has made it far more difficult, if not impossible, to keep a private occurrences private, because somewhere, somehow, somebody is going to decide that this is worth putting out there," he says. "It might be a mainstream news organization. It might be cable TV news. It could be the National Enquirer, a tabloid, or it could be an [Internet] blogger somewhere."

Fiedler says that while rigorously examining politicians' private lives might help voters know more about these candidates, it can also hurt the political process. It can distract voters from focusing on substantial issues. And it's also likely to discourage some good candidates from seeking public office, knowing that, at any moment, their private family life or personal issues could become painfully public.