I have a tendency to lose myself in the drama-filled lives of celebrities like Madonna, Britney Spears, and Lindsay Lohan. In fact, I would consider it an all consuming urge…at least while at the grocery store. In my head, I want these people to be adulterous and caught in the throes of passion or a sexual identity crisis. God forbid one of my blessed rags were to skimp on the love lives of my favorite star, I might be forced to go to the supermarket for food. And yet, when I see articles on Barak Obama’s family and Sarah Palin’s $150,000 wardrobe, my cravings for baby daddy drama get muddled and I feel, well, wrong. Since the Kennedy era, it has been more commonplace to report on the sexual appetites and goings-on of our country’s public figures. As a journalist, and curiously nosy one at that, I find myself in a quandary of sorts when it comes to the ethical soundness of a public outing. In a time where the line between entertainment and news is constantly being blurred, I wonder how the general public and news media will discern politicians from other celebrities.
Ask any other journalist whether it is appropriate to cover a sex “scandal” before it fully develops and they too would have a serious doubts about the story’s ethical content. How, they might ask, can a journalist truly seek the truth and report it while abiding by the Journalist’s Code of Ethics? More to the point, is it ethical to expose the private lives of politicians because they have thrust themselves upon the public rostrum and thus relinquished their rights? Or are they still entitled to privacy, no matter how morally ambiguous their actions may be? When racy headlines combine with the public’s desire for gossip and thrills, how does a journalist hold true to ethical standards while doing their duty of informing the public? Simply put, how does a journalist avoid sensationalizing; where does responsible reporting meet the public’s right to know?
Public outings can be traced back to the Nixon days, and while his scandal was not sexually motivated, it opened the floodgates for publishing private presidential matters. Perhaps, before Watergate, Presidents were revered in an idealistic fashion in that they could do no wrong. And if they did, we didn’t want to know about it. John F. Kennedy, for example, was considered to be one of America’s saviors in the early sixties. Impossibly good looking and improbably young, he was shrouded in rumors of affairs with numerous women. Still, his activities didn’t make headlines.
Today, regardless of a mostly sex-positive attitude, the media and the public still tend to abhor public figures whose sexual exploits are of moral question. Whether they bear any resemblance to their own sex lives is another story. Why then, is it ok for to brush Kennedy’s voracious sexual appetite and womanizing ways under the rug while we publically demonize Bill Clinton for “not having sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky? True, Clinton purgered. True, we know that JFK was involved with several women, including the less-than-inconspicuous Marilyn Monroe. The only difference is the energy with which the media devoted to the subject. Without a doubt, the general attitude toward sex in America has become more relaxed and generally open to discussion; but does this doesn’t justify prying into private matters. What if President Elect Barak Obama was the one having an extramarital affair?And therein lies the dilemma: when is it appropriate to expose the sexual habits of a public figure? When it affects the public or proves hypocrisy within the system- e.g. former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s involvement with a prostitution ring- or when societal mores deem the action immoral ala the infamous Lewinsky blowjob? I wonder what would happen if a journalist received a tip that President Elect Barack Obama had had an extramarital affair. Would the journalist hide it in order to uphold the image of the New Kennedy (a questionably ethical action) or would they publish it and possibly ruin the image of a politician who demonstrates a strong relationship with his partner (also questionably ethical)?
I vote the latter. I’m not advocating special treatment for our new president, nor am I suggesting that we remove sex from the public dialogue. It is nearly impossible to avoid sensationalizing a sex scandal concerning someone in power- I’ll admit, it makes for great drama in US Weekly. But, for God’s sake, you wouldn’t want the entire U.S. population to know that you had anonymous sex in an airport bathroom, would you?