Politicians and Privacy

Politicians and Privacy

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Sept. 29 1998 3:30 AM

Politicians and Privacy

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Dear Tom--

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       Judging from Ed Rothstein's column in this morning's New York Times, he finds your side of this discussion more persuasive than mine--so far. But I still have time for a comeback.
       Actually, I'm not sure how far apart we are. I have conceded that I wouldn't have outed Henry Hyde's 30-year-old adultery, and you have conceded that you have no problem with outing similar, more recent behavior by Helen Chenoweth. Faced with the danger of agreement in practice, maybe we'd better stick to theory. (Just to be clear to readers and future participants, though: There is no penalty for dialectical progress toward agreement in these dialogues. This isn't Crossfire.) Going back to those three arguments for violating politicians' privacy:
       Hypocrisy. You accept that this can be a justification if the hypocrisy is specific--you, the politician, are doing something you profess to oppose--but not if it is merely the general convention of presenting the world a normal family life. This is one aspect of the argument on which I guess I've mellowed in the past 20 years: Conventions are useful, and therefore sometimes justifiable, even when they are technically dishonest. So let's say the line here is drawn somewhere between posing for photographs with your family and introducing legislation to outlaw your own personal favorite use for cigars (including smoking them). That leaves plenty of room for journalism seminars to debate cases. Is voting for some bill a sufficient peg, or must you be outspoken on the subject? And so on.
       Exploitation. You deny that any useful generalization about a politician's public role can be derived from his/her private sexual behavior, partly on the grounds that bad behavior in sexual ("and familial") matters is too common to be useful in distinguishing one human being from another. Gosh, that's bleak! And do you really mean it? It seems to me that your logic would apply to almost any assessment of a politician's character that goes beyond his/her official acts and public statements. Do you go that far? No historian would dream of attempting to assess a political figure on such a narrow basis. Why should the voters be so constrained? After all, unlike the historians, the voters decide who our rulers are and must live with the consequences.
       You might be better off arguing that sexual behavior, along with many other aspects of a politician's past and present nonofficial life, does of course factor in a sensible assessment of his/her character, and that character is of course a legitimate element in judging his/her suitability for political office, but (as you argue regarding the democracy issue, below) in the case of sexual behavior the cost of weighing and knowing this particular factor isn't worth the added benefit. Just a suggestion.
       I do love your phrase "pathological communitarianism." Wanna expand it into a piece for Slate?
       Democracy. The question here is whether, in deciding what information to make public, journalists should give readers information they will find useful in making political choices, even if the journalist believes they shouldn't find it useful. Your position, as I understand it, is that a) sexual tales are too interesting for either voters or journalists to be able to assess their political relevance rationally, and b) the negative effects of revealing private sexual behavior outweigh any benefit.
       I'm almost with you here, until you praise the woman who says she finds the information relevant but still would rather not know. You claim this attitude is widespread among voters and sadly lacking among journalists. First, this contradicts your argument that people will overestimate the political relevance of sex stuff because of its inherent human interest. Second, it contradicts reality. People do want to read about Flytrap, whatever they may say. Journalists are not forcing this information down their throats (an unfortunate metaphor, perhaps).
       One advantage--or perhaps disadvantage--of publishing on the Internet is that we can measure readership of individual pages, not just of the publication as a whole. And there's no question whether Slate readers want more Monica. Their e-mail says no no, but their mouse clicks say yes yes.
       Anyway, why is it admirable to refuse to know something that you yourself believe should be a decisive factor in selecting our rulers? If the person actually exists who thinks sexual behavior is politically important but doesn't want to know about it (as opposed to the many who want to know about it even though they don't think it's politically important), she should be ashamed of herself.
       Let me end this entry by exploiting my access to a real-life philosopher for a free philosophical consultation. As it happens, Slate really is considering whether to publish an article that does reveal details of a politician's private life. Many extraneous factors may affect our decision--above all, of course, whether we can vouch for its accuracy--but the main issue is the one you and I are discussing. The subject is a national politician who has been highly critical of President Clinton regarding Flytrap and is in general a noisy advocate of "family values." It is already public knowledge that his personal life has fallen short of these ideals, but this article offers details and examples that go beyond what is publicly known. A final twist: Another media outlet is working on the same story. So, on the one hand, from a journalistic point of view we're eager to publish ASAP but, on the other hand, if truth and justice were our only concerns, there would be no need to publish at all!
       Well, Socrates?