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When Reporters Should Tell

I haven't read Seymour Hersh's new book, "The Dark Side of Camelot," and I probably won't. But it seems that John F. Kennedy, whose politics I disagreed with but whom I thought witty and elegant, was a thoroughly disappointing human being, trundling girlfriends and prostitutes in and out of White House bedrooms as frequently as Bill Clinton did political contributors.

Mr. Hersh has had his journalistic ups and downs, and in at least one story of which I have personal knowledge, I know he erred. But overall, he is a great reporter. And on the Kennedy story, his wealth of detail, his witnesses, and his on-the-record interviews seem to leave little doubt that President Kennedy pursued his adulterous trysting in the White House in such a brazen manner as to court political suicide.

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The question that keeps coming to my mind is: Where was the press when all of this was going on? It is inconceivable to me that there was not a whisper of it abroad. Ben Bradlee, then Newsweek's Washington bureau chief and later editor of The Washington Post, was President Kennedy's closest media confidante, at times spending weekends with the Kennedys. Didn't he have a suspicion?

If members of the press did know of the presidential shenanigans, why didn't they tell the public?

And indeed, to get to the core of a problem that troubles journalists today, should they have?

If President Kennedy's indiscretions were covered up, by contrast President Clinton's extramarital dalliances - either actual or perceived - have been given substantial news coverage. In part this is because they have become public events. Gennifer Flowers produced pillow-talk tapes at a news conference. Paula Jones is suing.

But in part it also is because journalistic standards have changed. Thirty years ago journalists were more inclined to separate the private life of a public figure from his public life. That is why I suspect that some journalists had a pretty good idea of Kennedy's philandering but elected not to write about it, either out of fear of presidential wrath, the belief that it didn't affect the president's conduct in office, or the conviction that readers would be affronted.

Today, many journalists have no such reservations. From the supermarket tabloids to The New York Times, the indiscretions of presidents, senators, and other public officials are chronicled, albeit with varying degrees of detail and varying degrees of ethical justification for publication.

Some worthy candidates have been discouraged from seeking public office by this media prying into their (and their families') private lives and financial dealings. But reasonable scrutiny of a candidate's integrity, background, and character is the price that must be paid by those who seek our votes, ask for our trust, and who will make significant decisions on our behalf.

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The question the journalistic community must ask - often on a case-by-case basis - is what is "reasonable"? What is prurient pursuit of gossip to titillate the lowest common denominator among readers? And what is fulfilling a serious obligation to inform readers of misdeeds that might render an official unworthy of service?

Did Betty Ford's alcoholism impair the judgment of President Ford when he was in office? Probably not. An editor who knew of it might well have decided that it was not necessarily in the public interest to publish that story.

Were Billy Carter's financial dealings with Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi an embarrassment to his brother, President Carter, and a potential complication for his presidency? Probably yes. Many editors published that story.

Did President Kennedy's liaison with Judith Exner, also the mistress of Mafia bosses, make him vulnerable to blackmail, and perhaps even pose a security leak? Absolutely. Any editor who knew of it should have published it.

Private misbehavior by a public figure (such as a president) that makes him (or her) vulnerable to blackmail, that impairs judgment in carrying out the office, that threatens national security, surely justifies disclosure by the press.

There is the overall issue of character. A national leader should be a moral beacon for his people. Like it or not, he becomes every bit as much a role model for the nation's youth as a popular movie or sports star.

If, in his private life, he practices deception, disloyalty, disregard for accepted moral standards, that is a legitimate area of inquiry for the press.

* John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.

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