Both Reilly and Green felt the emails conveyed readers a sense of how just how astray and inappropriate Sebring’s communications were while she was on the job. And that readers, as the taxpayers Sebring ultimately works for, have a right to know about how those communications got in the way of her work. Both Reilly and Green wrote columns explaining the editorial decision-making behind the Sebring story: Reilly’s is available here; Green’s is available here.
“The Register doesn’t sneak around and peer behind bedroom doors or look under the blankets or dig into the personal lives of public officials,” Green told me. “What public officials do on their own time as it relates to private citizens really isn’t a matter of concern until it spills over into the public arena. We could not ignore the story, could not dismiss the fact that those emails were the reason that she did her sudden and abrupt resignation.”
“It’s like pornography.”
What’s the journalistic upshot here? Yes, Sebring’s emails were written on tax payer-funded equipment by a taxpayer funded public official. Green, for one, has no doubts about the Register’s handling of the story and the allowance of privacy to a public official. What’s the public right to know, I asked him?
“It’s like pornography, sometimes you know it when you see it. And in this case, we saw it and we knew it and we had to do something about it.”
And it is certainly true that neither paper could ignore the personal emails that got Nancy Sebring fired. But eight pages of them, annotated, as the Register ran online? And the World-Herald: even more of the back-and-forth (unlike the Register, the World-Herald included a selection of the lover’s responses, too). Beyond the sexually explicit parts, the reader gets a full view of Sebring’s emotional life.
Both papers insist they struck a balance. And indeed, what they printed is less than what was available to them. But personally, I’m not so sure it was necessary to give even a carefully curated and redacted set of the behind-bedroom-door details. Sebring was fired for breaking the district’s technology policy. Why, other than to feed prurience or heighten Sebring’s humiliation—wouldn’t a summary or selective excerpting of her emails do?
The Register deserves credit for breaking this story and uncovering the truth behind Sebring’s resignation, information that was owed both to the citizens who Sebring served in Des Moines, and those she was going to serve in Omaha. But the press also has a role to play—particularly as technology increases the expectation that we work and communicate around the clock—in establishing the line between a public official’s privacy and the public’s right to know. I’m not sure the Sebring case sets a good precedent.