Came across an academic article saying public officials no longer have private lives off limits from prying media and opposing political campaigns — to the detriment of public service. It was published in 1998.
Imagine how things are now with heightened divisive politics, partisan news media, uncontrolled social media and a never-ending list of politicians whose horrifying activities in their private lives demand public scrutiny.
The question of when the private lives of politicians deserve public exposure is a perpetual one for the press. It has arisen lately with the cases of U.S. Congressman Matt Gaetz (OK, actually zero question here) and Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who admitted last week to marital infidelity.
Merrill has been here before. In 2015, Alabama Media Group (disclosure: my former employer) published a story about a 4-year-old consensual sexual encounter between a woman and Merrill, who was secretary of state at the time of publication but not at the time of the incident. AMG commendably published an explanation of its decision to run the story, but the rationale was unpersuasive, as it relied on a familiar but weak argument: the “it’s already out there” argument.
When ethical outlets cite social media spread or prior publication by a disreputable outlet (or an anonymous email sent to state legislators as was the case with Merrill in 2015), they surrender their judgment and standards to trolls and axe grinders.
Reporting on the private behaviors of public officials requires justification that is founded in journalistic mission and serves a public interest (not to be confused with merely being of public interest). The latest Merrill case has that. Interestingly, the Alabama Democratic Party said in a written statement that the Republican Merrill’s “personal life and conduct are just that — personal.” It validly expressed more concern about the claim of the woman involved with Merrill that he referred to African Americans as “the coloreds.”
The Democrats did criticize Merrill for “the use of state resources to facilitate his affair.” When tax dollars are involved in any form — government phones, vehicles, personnel or premises — that’s a slam-dunk reason to publish.
Here are some other good justifications for the press to decide a private matter is actually a public concern. You will note that enforcement of traditional moral values isn’t one of them.
- The private conduct is a crime or ethics law violation.
- It affects the public official’s ability to do their job.
- The public official has made moral virtue a part of their campaigning, policy agenda or public image. Hypocrisy is newsworthy. (This one fits the latest Merrill situation.)
- The official pre-emptively goes public with it or takes a newsworthy action because of it, such as resigning. (Merrill said he wouldn’t seek a U.S. Senate seat.)
- A law enforcement or regulatory authority is investigating the conduct.
That’s a long list, and not necessarily complete. Public officials — who chose their roles, remember — can claim only a small sphere of true privacy. Too many of them seem not to grasp this or, if they do, they think they’re slick enough to get away with something.
The power and trust that citizens grant to public officials are vast. The press has decided that fair territory for scrutiny is vast, as well. This is as it should be.
Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.
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