How much does the public need to know?
One of the better books on journalism is “Deadlines Past,” by Walter R. Mears, an Associated Press reporter who covered presidential contests from Kennedy-Nixon to Bush-Gore.
The press’s relationship with its subjects changed mightily in that time, Mears wrote. He illustrates the point with an anecdote about how John F. Kennedy agreed to do an interview immediately after taking a swim on the campaign trail.
Kennedy, according to Mears, put on a shirt, tie and jacket, but left on his swimming trunks, never doubting the gentleman’s agreement – they were all gentlemen in those days – that Kennedy would not be filmed below the waist. Nowadays, Mears wrote, the goofy picture of Kennedy in tie and trunks would have been mocked on all the late-night shows.
I pondered on that anecdote as I read Politico Magazine’s analysis of the latest dispatch from David J. Garrow, an acclaimed biographer of Martin Luther King Jr. Reporting in Standpoint, a conservative periodical, Garrow detailed newly declassified summaries of supposed FBI wiretaps of King that proved, according to the summaries’ authors, that the civil rights icon had looked on and laughed while a friend of his raped a woman in a hotel room.
Politico’s David Greenburg reported that many conservatives – angry at the calls from the Left to remove of statues and other memorials to Confederate generals and even slave-owning founding fathers from public squares – jumped on Garrow’s work to demand liberals abolish King’s likeness from the public arena or be called hypocrites. Greenburg’s position, however, was that the new trove of records certainly demanded a new, critical look at King’s life but it was too early to pass judgement, since all that’s been released were summaries by an FBI known to have a vendetta against King, and not the wiretaps themselves.
(Read Garrow’s reporting here: https://tinyurl.com/y38ob5vn; read the analysis from Greenburg here: https://tinyurl.com/y447akza).
I have often wondered, even before I became a journalist, whether some of the heroes of our past, like King, would even be a blip on the historical radar if they’d started out in today’s media climate.
The media of today would have used banner headlines to report that many of our founding fathers owned slaves. They would have made it known that Benjamin Franklin was a womanizer, that Abraham Lincoln was clinically depressed. They would have reported on King’s philandering and Kennedy’s Addison’s disease.
There’s a chance the public would be forgiving. The public forgave Bill Clinton for his treatment of women and for lying under oath. It forgave George W. Bush for past alcoholism and Barack Obama for past drug use and, certainly, Donald Trump has been forgiven much by his supporters.
But there’s just as good a chance that the public would have looked at Abe Lincoln’s depression and declared him mentally unfit for office (it happened to Sen. Tom Eagleton in 1972) and run him back to the Illinois courthouse, robbing him of the chance to change America for the better.
I ponder mightily on all of this every time I’ve approached a story as a reporter or, now, as an editor, every time my team approaches a story. How much does the public need to know? How does the public’s right to make informed decisions weigh against a subject’s right to privacy?
The barometer, as always, is the mission. Newspapers exist to give readers the information they need to know to decide how to vote, where to live, work, shop, or send their kids to school, or whether they need to get involved in their community to enact change. We also exist to record history as it happens for the readers of the future.
Even with that barometer, the answers to the questions I posed above are dependent on the circumstances.
Some answers are obvious. The public needs to know, for example, whether those sworn to uphold the law are breaking the law. That’s why a police officer arrested for drunk driving is more newsworthy than the arrest of a factory worker on the same charges.
Other answers are more obscure. Is the character of some politicians more important than others? A township clerk having an affair, for example, may not be newsworthy, while those of a president – elected to be not only the chief executive but also the moral leader of our nation on the world stage – might be.
Such questions are routinely debated in newsrooms all across America, and each time, the answers to those questions are a judgement call.
The only certainty, I’ve learned after 13 years in this business, is that, no matter which way you go, readers are certain to call you and complain for sharing too much or too little.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.