If it were 1991 and not 2011, the Columbia Journalism Review, America's editorial pages, Paul Harvey, the halls of academe, and other guardians of good taste and morals would be chastising the press for its coverage of the frothy "sex scandal" that has made Rep. Anthony Weiner and the Twitter crotch shot national punch lines. Imagine their tut-tuts:
Adds nothing to the national discussion.
A private matter.
A tasteless act—if the member of Congress indeed sent the picture—but not "news."
Back in those pre-Internet times, an elected official had to get arrested or do something completely loopy in public—like drive his car off a bridge at Chappaquiddick—before the press corps would go sensationalistic. Rep. Wilbur Mills, D-Ark., got the treatment after he crashed his car and his passenger, stripper Fanne Foxe, ran away from the scene and jumped into the Tidal Basin. * Reps. Dan Crane, R-Ill., and Gerry Studds, D-Mass., generated oceans of yellow coverage after getting busted for having sex with congressional pages (Crane with a female, Studds with a male). After Rep. Donald E. (Buz) Lukens, R-Ohio, was charged and convicted for having sex with a 16-year-old girl, the press could not get enough of the story.
In reporting these stories, the press corps would almost always feign distaste as they tore through court files to collect as many sordid details as they could for publication until the relevance window started to close.
The press corps' prudishness or self-censorship or conditional exploitation—or whatever you want to call it—had more to do with publishers' fears that they might offend big advertisers than it did with ethics debates inside the newsroom. If 100 subscribers canceled because they were offended by prurient coverage, the offending newspaper would survive. But if one or two big department stores withdrew their advertisements because they didn't like seeing their full-page ads next to congressional sex coverage, a newspaper's bottom line could unravel.
Of course many publishers believed in the wholesome presentation of news of the depraved, so their guidelines weren't complete fig leaves. One of the most Victorian set of editorial principles in print were composed by Washington Post owner Eugene Meyer in 1935 and published on the front page of the Washington Post. They remain on display in the Post lobby to this day.
Among the seven principles laid out by Meyer, these were designed to govern coverage of the salacious:
As a disseminator of news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman.
What it prints shall be fit reading for the young as well as the old.
As fusty as the principles may sound today, I can remember them being quoted in earnest over the phone by a Washington Post managing editor in the early 1990s (Hi, Bob!) who was answering my questions about Post coverage. I'm sure that "the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman" was easily interpreted in the 1930s. What it means today, I have no idea. A private gentleman does not ask impertinent questions. He does not compile dossiers on other citizens. He rarely attempts to find evidence that would get a senator or CEO thrown in jail. Post gentlemen and gentlewomen do this daily.
The second of the two principles—read in any decade, past or future—sounds paternalistic and patronizing because it is. But you can see the appeal. By promising to keep the Post and its readers out of the gutter, the Meyer principles short-leash those reporters and editors who might want to explore the territories where squalor and turpitude thrive. In practice, the Post and every other "quality" daily in the country evade Meyerian principles by writing in code when reporting stories about adultery, degeneracy, iniquity, vice, and the other human mainstays. If you know the code, you're exposed to the filth and the fury. A more honest version of Meyer's principle about the young and the old would read, "What the paper prints shall sate the prurient interests of the old without being comprehensible to the young who don't read newspapers anymore anyhow."