We Ask The Ethicist

Randy Cohen's take on the Edwards affair

When you’ve got an ethics question, there’s only one place to turn. We asked Randy Cohen, “The Ethicist” at The New York Times Magazine, to weigh on the Edwards debacle.

Hypothetical: I’m an editor at a reputable newspaper. One day, I see an article in a tabloid publication—one with a history of getting some big stories right—about a former presidential candidate’s involvement in a love affair that may have led to the birth of a child. What do I do?

You investigate any potential important story that you think may have possibly happened. The Enquirer story wasn’t a one-shot report. This went on for some time and was on the blogs. I’d probably ignore one story in the Enquirer.

It’s easy to criticize journalists in hindsight. What I thought was striking was how quickly the big important editors at the big important papers forgave themselves.

But wait, what about the idea that sex may be a private matter?

Mores change. What level of privacy is afforded to people, these assumptions change. In the post-Bill Clinton era, these things have been picked over assiduously.

Might not be more be made of the McCain comparison? I think some parallels might be made with him and his affair. I’m astonished at what a free ride McCain gets, but some figures tend to get protected.

What I don’t understand is why you would talk about this? It seems the proper response for Edwards is “None of your business.” Why one would chose to respond to this, I can’t imagine.

The journalist’s job isn’t to pander to the prejudices of the readers, the journalist’s job is to regard this as an important story. It gets very hard, because once other people regard people’s sex lives as important, that makes it news.

But don’t you, by covering this story, tell readers that this is important and that they should care about it?

Those judgments get played in what prominence you give the story. While you as a reporter may think it is irrelevant, you may simultaneously believe that it’s important because other people think it’ll affect the elections.

How do you frame the story? In some of the stories about public officials’ private lives, the unspoken assumption says that this reveals something about that amorphous thing “character,” and that translates into an ability to predict how someone will do their job.

With Obama, questions about race were raised, but virtually no reporter thinks his race affects the way he’s gonna do his job. But many people think it might have an effect on the election.

If you look through human history, and you think, “Hmm, Is there a correlation between the ability to perform in higher office and one’s sex life?” you’d be hard pressed to find it.

Your story can essentially be that this irrelevant fact about someone—that has no effect on the ability to do that job—can affect the election. In an election it can get tricky because this type of thing can influence how are people are deciding.

Ethics and professionalism blur together so much. Why were JFK’s infidelities given so little play for so long? Is it because all the editors, who were middle-aged white men, identified with Kennedy?

So, why the interest in politicians’ dirty laundry?

Well, there’s been an increased belief in the importance of transparency in a democratic society, and that broadcasts itself in business governance and in political governance.

There have been all sorts of sunshine laws—freedom of information—and an increasing acceptance of legitimate things for citizens to ask about information that would not have been exposed before. There’s a kind of cultural openness.

Well, what about the ethics of talking about affairs and such in the private realm?

Not only is it okay within a certain limit, it’s inevitable and it’s profoundly human and not in a bad way: if I knew about some astonishing, intimate doing of one of my friends, how could I not talk about it?

With this caveat: Your interest is inevitable and your eagerness to talk about it is not just inevitable, but also quite wonderful, because conversation is better than silence—but you have to be aware of the consequences of your actions. And how you navigate your interest is very important.

There are things people say about one another “behind their back” that would be very hurtful were they to be said to their face. I mean, look, I know there are things that my friends say about me that they would never say to me. I respect their compassion and discretion in not saying them to me. They love me; they’re my friends.

I’m very pro gossip. It’s a pejorative term, but it really means “Are you interested in other human beings? Are you interested in the most fascinating, revealing, intimate decisions they make?” Yes! I am!

AIso, is what you’re saying true? That’s not unimportant. To simply pass along something you heard that is false is more dubious.

I think it was Alice Roosevelt Longworth who said, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.” The goings on of other people, those that involve strong feeling, charged with emotion, violate the conventions of society, those are the most interesting things about life. Those are the things of novels.

I know there are people to claim such rectitude to be above the fray, and deprecate these conversations as gossip.

But I think it’s important to ask: Is their interest filled with tenderness and affection? Are they mindful of what’s true and not true?

If gossip makes snide comments about a person that’s designed to lacerate your friend and the falseness of the relationship can be revealed, if it’s intended to wound someone, I’m against it.

Your motives count. There’s gossip and there’s gossip. But a conversation that reveals your concern with tenderness and affection, that’s the highest form of gossip.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.