Climate of 'gotcha' journalism endures, despite instance of restraint


WASHINGTON -- One of the more interesting post-election revelations is the fact that a number of mainstream news organizations had, but decided not to print or air, the story about a romantic affair involving Bob Dole 28 years ago, when he was still married to his first wife.

The story was published in the last week of October by the tabloid National Enquirer. But, unlike the response when another gossip sheet, The Star, broke the story of Gary Hart's womanizing in 1987, this time the mainstream press largely laid off or mentioned it only briefly.

It has been acknowledged now that the Washington Post and Time magazine confirmed the story in interviews with the woman in question before the election, but decided not to print all they had learned. (The Post did cite it briefly, buried in another campaign story and without identifying the woman).

Editors whose news organizations did not run anything about the story or brushed it off with a paragraph or two said they considered it irrelevant to the campaign, in that the affair took place 28 years before and didn't touch on Mr. Dole's ability to govern.

In an otherwise dismal campaign, this judgment was one of maturity and good taste, and a welcome turn from an increasing tendency within journalism to let the tail of the gossip tabloids wag the dog of mainstream press.

It is true there were significant differences between this story and Hart's. Mr. Hart, awash in rumors of marital infidelity, at one point invited the press to tail him in its quest for evidence of current womanizing. Reporters for the Miami Herald eventually found it, and subsequently the Post uncovered another affair with another woman, and Senator Hart's candidacy was destroyed.

News organizations that needed a rationale for printing the Dole story could have found it in his repeated championing of "family values" and his self-declaration as the candidate -- in obviously intentional contrast with President Clinton -- "you can trust."

Perhaps in a closer election, the judgment of many editors may have been put to a tougher test. But Mr. Dole seemed so far gone according to the polls, why add insult to injury?

One wrinkle in the whole story of how the affair was treated by the mainstream press was conjecture that Mr. Dole's awareness that reporters were pursuing the story may have persuaded him not to attack Mr. Clinton on the allegations of personal misconduct that long have clung to him.

Avoided allegations

It was certainly true that Mr. Dole largely steered clear of raising them, at least until the last weeks of the campaign.

But part of the reason clearly had nothing to do with the story of Mr. Dole's 28-year-old dalliance. He knew that going negative against the president in any fashion would surely generate recollections of his longtime reputation as a political attack dog, at least in his earlier days.

At any rate, Dole spokesmen have denied that knowledge in the Dole camp of the old story had anything to do with the Republican nominee's decision to go easy on Mr. Clinton on his own earlier indiscretions.

It may be too early to conclude that the mainstream press's handling of the old Dole story signals a return to the old standard for printing or airing such matters -- whether or not the conduct has diminished or may diminish a public official's ability to perform his job effectively.

Before the era of "gotcha" journalism in which anything a candidate or officeholder said or did has usually been considered fair game for press disclosure, such public figures were given considerable slack. Ever since the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam war, however, they have learned that they misbehave in any area at their political peril.

One obvious casualty has been the state of relations between political figures and the press that covers them -- and, increasingly, keeps a wary eye on their personal as well as public lives. Access for reporters to them has been markedly limited compared to the past, a fact that often intensifies an adversarial relationship between the two.

Despite the greater maturity demonstrated by most of the mainstream press in this case, the chances are that candidates as a general rule will continue to keep reporters at arm's length. The climate of distrust fostered by "gotcha" journalism is not going to evaporate overnight.

rTC Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 11/15/96

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