Edsall: ‘Newt Gingrich’s History is Fair Game’

And other thoughts on when the press should examine the private lives of public figures

Last week, at CNN’s “First in the South” debate in Charleston, Newt Gingrich ripped into moderator John King for beginning the debate with a question about allegations made by Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne, that he had asked her for an “open marriage.”

GINGRICH: I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office. And I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.

His response was met with wild applause, and is widely viewed as contributing to his victory in the South Carolina primary three days later.

Did Gingrich have a point? When is it appropriate for the media to scrutinize the private lives of public officials? We turned to Thomas Edsall, a veteran political reporter and professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, for his thoughts on this long-debated question. Edsall speaks from experience: as a reporter for The Washington Post, he received a tip about a long-term affair involving presidential candidate Gary Hart, and had to decide what to do with it. An edited transcript of the conversation appears below:

Can you talk about your experience with these issues during the Hart affair?

What happened then was I got a tip—a guy was doing a divorce case and by chance this person came upon the fact that Hart was having an affair. And he passed it on to me. At the time I was reluctant to do anything with it myself but I felt I should at least tell my editor, Ben Bradlee, which I did. I didn’t think it was worth doing because by this time, the Donna Rice scandal had already broken and Hart was no longer a viable candidate even though he was still running. I thought it was really sticking a knife in a dead body, but that was not the way Ben felt or another reporter, Paul Taylor felt. So it ended up in the paper. I always felt kind of queasy about the whole thing, frankly.

How does the Hart case fit into the history of media reporting on the private lives of public officials?

In terms of a heterosexual affair, Hart is the first that comes to mind. There are a lot of guys who boasted about their exploits—like Edwin Edwards, who ultimately got married three different times—but they were not being exposed in some sense.

There was always a lingering question about whether the press should have reported on John F. Kennedy’s affairs, especially since one of the women that he was involved with—Judith Exner—also had ties of some kind to the Mafia. That probably put it into the newsworthy terrain, that tie. There were other debates that came up after the fact—FDR’s relationship with his secretary, as well as Eisenhower and one of his aides. But these were all ex post facto.

There were homosexual cases before Hart. They seemed to be considered fair game by the media—a lot of times those cases involved an arrest, which automatically made it official, and the press could cover it without feeling too sleazy. Attitudes towards homosexuals were very different back then than they are now.

When is it appropriate for the press to report on the private life of a political candidate?

The whole standard has been a moving target. One of the things that is clear now, and I do tend to agree with, is that if a person has taken a policy position that in his personal behavior he violates—like if he’s against gay marriage and gay rights, but is actually having a homosexual affair or is gay himself, I think that’s fair game.

The other territory in this vein is that the Christian Right has set standards in the Republican Party that have really forced the candidates to take strong positions on moral issues. And once they do that in that context, I think they open themselves up to whether their personal lives are a double standard compared to what they are publicly pronouncing.

Certainly, I think Newt Gingrich’s past history is fair game. More than fair game. What he did and how he did it is really reflective of his character. The much harder problem, and one that I would personally be much more reluctant to get anywhere near, is the private life of a public official who makes no claims about being morally superior or having moral values that preclude such behavior. The person that is just a regular guy or woman. I think that’s an area the press should just move very cautiously in.

Can you think of examples of that situation?

This was a real problem the Post had in the 1996 campaign—I was not involved, but I was familiar with the debate. They knew Bob Dole had had an affair during his first marriage, and Bob Dole knew that the Post knew. The Post didn’t particularly want to do anything with it.

It had an effect, though—Dole was very reluctant to go on any morning TV shows that you would have to commit to the day before, because he was worried that the Post would come out with it in the morning paper and that he would have to go on a TV show and answer questions about it. Then it becomes a real issue for a candidate—it’s interfering with the operation of a campaign.

I think the Post in that case should have made clear to Dole what it planned to do. It was unfair to keep him hanging because it altered the character of his campaign. You can’t have a presidential candidate unwilling to go on TV because of a possible story that may or may not happen over a long time. This went on for about three weeks, I think.

[For another perspective on the unreported Dole affair, see this 1997 American Journalism Review article.]

Did the Post ever report it?

They sort of buried it in the story. A lot of times these scandals break in a disreputable publication like The National Enquirer. And that always causes a dilemma—‘What should The Washington Post do?’ ‘What should The New York Times do?’ The Post developed a really chintzy way around this, which was to assign it to the media reporter as a media dilemma story. That way he’d get the information in the story and get it in the paper but you’d justify that it was really an examination of media ethics. But the real purpose was just to get the information into the paper. This was not forthright.

At the same time, it’s kind of cliché to say it, but the rub for the traditional media is that they no longer control the news process. The web and the cable news people can control so much of what the agenda is that it really forces the issue when you’re with a more traditional media outlet. As journalistic terrain, it’s really unresolved. Newspapers haven’t figured out how to deal with it.

Anything else the media consider in evaluating whether to report these stories?

The New York Times did not do a very good job handling the innuendo, basically, that John McCain was having an affair with a woman lobbyist in 2008. I think a lot of people would agree that story shouldn’t have been published as written.

In that case, the issue of having an illicit relationship with a lobbyist who is active before the Commerce committee, which McCain chaired for a while—you’re reaching a point of relevance that makes it newsworthy if it’s true and you can really say it. But the Times piece didn’t fully say it. You’d also have to document how his actions had favored the interests of this particular lobbyist.

Has the reaction of the public to these sorts of stories changed over time?

The public in any kind of poll always says these stories are bad and terrible and wrong. But I think they love to read these stories, and certainly cable television thrives on them—any kind of innuendo or allegation like that becomes grist for the mill.

Do you think we’ll reach a point where these stories become so common that voters won’t care any more? Does the enthusiasm for Gingrich’s response point to that?

The positive reaction shown in the Gingrich incident shows more animosity to the media than it does an endorsement of his behavior.

It really depends on the politician and the nature of their marriage—Clinton basically admitted to an affair in 1992 during the campaign and it still didn’t stop him. And there were allegations against George H. W. Bush, and those never really took hold either.

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Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.