Earlier this week, I wrote about media coverage surrounding the “racy emails” that led to Des Moines, IA, school superintendent Nancy Sebring’s resignation. Sebring’s emails—I’d classify them as “really really embarrassing” before I’d call them “racy”—received attention on the Web from outlets around the world. They all gleefully cast her as their very own 50 Shades of Grey character.
A concerned CJR reader, Martha, commented that we were ignoring a more important racy email story. A Wall Street Journal reporter resigned on Tuesday after a flirty email exchanges with a US official—a source at the time, now her husband—were made available on the Internet. Sigh.
We get that sex sells, but the press would be well served by some soul searching on how much is too much—and how to report these stories with a little humanity. Some things are just not the public’s business.
Gina Chon, the Journal reporter, made an obvious ethical lapse in 2008 when she entered into a relationship Brett McGurk, a US official in Iraq, the country she was covering and failed to disclose it. She made another, arguably bigger one when she showed him her stories before they were published.
It was dumb, dumb, dumb for Chon and especially McGurk (at .gov) to send so many emails with so many cringeworthy references to ‘blue balls’ from their work accounts—the equivalent of sending booty calls out on company letterhead.
But that was in 2008, and they’re married now. It’s really something that, because of McGurk’s pending ambassadorship, the inappropriate BlackBerry exchanges that got their courtship started back in 2008 are public and professionally catastrophic for Chon and McGurk today. For what it’s worth, The Wall Street Journal has said that Chon’s relationship did not affect her reporting. How much about this does the public really need to know?
I argued the same in the Sebring case. It’s good, watchdog journalism to expose and explain the real reason for a sudden resignation of a public official, but it’s invasive and unnecessary to publish pages of the official’s personal emails.
Maybe we are all destined to one day resign over emails —this feels a little like the early days of the Napster crackdown—but let’s hope the public figures out personal email accounts and the press figures out how to report these cases with some restraint before that happens.