Journalists need to sift through dirt Digging hard is OK

what gets published is another story

October 11, 1998|By Steve Weinburg

Media critics who say journalists have no business delving into the sex lives of U.S. Reps. Henry Hyde and Dan Burton are probably well-intentioned - but misguided about how and why investigative reporters do what they do. The controversy has led me to reflect not only on the current controversy, but also on the difficult decisions I made a decade ago as the first independent biographer of business tycoon Armand Hammer, public figure extraordinaire, whose private life was messy to say the least.

When a public official excercises influence over policy and thus over fellow human beings, that official should expect scrutiny of actions and words, of any disconnect between performance in the public arena and behavior while off stage. Journalists are not the only people capable of doing the scrutinizing. But because nobody else has that job description, journalists have accepted the responsiblity, sometimes reluctantly, sometimes eagerly.

Whether reluctant or eager, journalists must go through two states of decisionmaking. Not all of my colleagues agree, but I think the first stage ought to be automatic - learning as much as possible about the public official when a disconnect seems at all likely. It is the vacuum cleaner approach to information-gathering: Sweep the carpet (and beneath the carpet), picking up everything possible. It takes searching skills developed through experience to do the job well, but it should be seen as an ethics-free process.

The less automatic, ethics-laden part of the process comes next, as the vacuum cleaner bag is emptied. There is no formula to arrive at the answer, no decision that will leave everyone content.

When the online magazine Salon published details earlier this month of Henry Hyde's 30-year-old extramarital affair, many news consumers - not all of them Democrats by any means - applauded the decision. After all, those applauding said, if a Congressman is going to be sitting in judgement of a president because that president lied about extramarital sex, why not be alert for hypocrisy in the life of the person doing the judging?

Many other news consumers - not all of them Republicans by any means - criticized the decision by Salon's staff. Hyde's conduct took place so long ago that it must be deemed irrelevant, the critics said, noting that at least several mainstream newspapers had decided to ignore the informant who eventually contacted Salon's editor. Besides, Hyde's conduct is not the point - he has performed conscientiously in his job as a Congressman, has earned his position as chair of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, and thus is qualified to judge whether Clinton should be censured, impeached, or some other alternative.

To his credit, Salon editor David Talbot nailed down Hyde's affair beyond a doubt before publishing. Justified ethically or not, the piece was solid. Then Talbot published an extraordinarily detailed editorial explaining the decision to publish. The explanation, while unusually gutsy on one level, seemed obligatory on another level. Why? Because of Salon's previous insistence that private lives of public officials ought to be sacrosanct - a premise many, probably most, investigative journalists would dispute if the private life influences public policy.

Talbot said Clinton's political opponents have made private behavior into a sweeping character issue. So, according to Talbot, "what holds true for President Clinton must hold equally true of the august figure who leads the committee sitting in judgment upon him." While conceding that Hyde never lied under oath about his sexual conduct, Talbot commented that "lying and having an affair can't be separated. To have an affair is by definition to lie about it - an affair is a lie."

Such a lie does not disqualify Hyde from fitness to hold public offic, Talbot said. Nor should it disqualify Clinton. I disagree there - people who hurt others with lies ought to be turned out by their constituents, I would argue. In hindsight, would anybody dispute the wisdom of the Miami Herald's controversial decision more than a decade ago to reveal the lies told by U.S. Sen Gary Hart about his sex life while trying to win the Democratic nomination for president?

The Herald's investigation told the citizenry something significant and enduring about Hart's character. But my disagreement with Talbot derives from my citizenship, not my vocation.

As an investigative reporter, I have struggled, again and again, with how much unpleasant private information to publish. Nearly a decade ago, my name appeared as author of the first independent biography covering the life of Armand Hammer, Occidental Petroleum Corporation chief executive officer, art collector, patron of cancer research, citizen-diplomat, a man of many accomplishments who was also a congenital liar.

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