Peepshow: Media and Politics in an Age of Scandal / Edition 1

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The line dividing public life and private behavior in American politics is more blurred than ever. When it comes to questions about sex, substance abuse and family life, anything goes on the political desk in many newsrooms, including uncorroborated hearsay disguised as news. But some stories still never make it into print or on the air. What are the rules for politicians and journalists in the aftermath of Washington's biggest sex scandal? Peepshow looks behind the scenes at news coverage of political scandals, analyzing what gets reported, what doesn't, and why. The authors talk with top news editors to get a fix on what will make the evening news and what we're likely to read about in the next campaign season. The costs of today's politics-by-scandal are mounting, with disaffected voters, discouraged candidates, and a news corps distracted from policy issues and substantive debate. But the forces driving 'attack journalism' have as much to do with voters and candidates as they do with what the press is organized to report. Peepshow offers an alternative view of the prurient side of election coverage, helping newsroom decision-makers and campaign managers see through the inevitable scandals of election year 2000 and gain insight into presenting a politics of public trust. CASE STUDIES include: _ South Carolina Governor David Beasley's denial of an unsubstantiated extramarital affair; _ Georgia gubernatorial candidate Mike Bowers' admitted affair with his secretary; _ Reporting on rumors sparked by Texas Governor George W. Bush's admission that he was once Oyoung and irresponsible;O _ Congressional affairs involving Representatives Barr, Burton, Chenoweth, Hyde and Livingston; _ The divorces of Bob Dole and John McCain; _ The outing of Arizona Rep. Jim Kolbe's and the sexuality of other members of Congress and candidates; _ Mississippi Governor Kirk Fordice's off-again, on-again divorce; _ Coverage of Colorado Governor Roy Romer's 'affectionate' relationship with a top aide and adviser. _ Speaker Newt Gingrich's relationship with a Hill committee aide; _ Coverage of once and possible first ladies and the children of political figures, including Chelsea Clinton and Sarah Gore; _ Reporting on unfounded rumors about Representative Bill Paxon's retirement.

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Editorial Reviews

The Weekly Standard
Sabato, Stencel, and Lichter aren't calling for a return to a bewigged, courtly gentility that never quite existed anyway. They well understand the demands placed upon editors and reporters anxious not to be scooped by the competition, as well as the greater fecundity of information tidbits expected in modern times by the reading and viewing public. Instead, they would have us all—especially professional journalists and all who inform or form opinion—step back and reflect upon the effects, political and otherwise, of recent spates of systematic scandal journalism, and in so doing they offer ways to raise editorial standards, increase journalistic credibility, and provide reasonable protections to those who seek public office.
Indianapolis Star
Warnings well worth heeding!
The Dallas Morning News
The book is an easy read, and the authors' premise is straightforward, humane and control-sensical. Their guidelines are worthy goals to consider.
The book offers several practical guidelines to aid journalists in deciding when personal failings deserve a public airing.
Political Communication
Peepshow should be applauded for its accessible examination of the editorial decisions behind news stories on the private lives of politicians between 1996 and 2000.
Senator Paul Wellstone
At a time when people are becoming more skeptical of a brand of journalism that focuses on the personal lives of those in public service—sometimes at the expense of substantive debate—the authors of Peepshow have done a great service by outlining the new journalistic rules. Acknowledging that personal character is important in politics as in other fields, they make clear what’s at stake in the emerging debate about where to draw the lines.
Kathleen Kennedy Townsend
Peepshow is a fascinating study of the ever-changing boundaries separating public life from private—a remarkably useful reminder to the press of right and wrong in their profession.
Stephen Hess
The authors’ proposed ‘fairness doctrine’ is a considerable contribution to the debate over how the media should cover candidates’ sexual, medical, legal, and financial histories. There isn’t a newsroom in America that couldn’t benefit from the authors’ wisdom.
Marvin Kalb
More than a peep at the show of politics, Peepshow is a serious study of how scandal coverage has corrupted political coverage. The authors deserve credit for criticizing not just the journalists, but the candidates and voters too for degrading our politics.
Morton Kondracke
Three of America's best political analysts have brilliantly tackled a grisly truth: sex and scandal have been institutionalized in American politics, with 'oppo' researchers digging not just through an adversary's old speeches and voting records, but divorce papers and the garbage. A must-read (and weep).
Robert Novak
An insightful, troubling, and—for a journalist—embarassing account of the impact on American public life of the news media’s propensity to personalize and attack in covering politics. The authors lay down prudent guidelines that should be must-reading in every newsroom.
(National Journal) The Hotline
In lucid, illuminating prose that invites the reader to breeze through the entertaining book in one sitting (a book of this nature could easily be overly pedantic), the authors provide context to the recent sea change in media attitudes. . . . Too many of the recent quickie books in the post-Monica era have been either cobbled-together accounts of the sequence of events or ideological rants from Clinton haters or apologists. University of Virginia professor Sabato, scribe Stencel, and Center for Media and Public Affairs president Lichter offer a bias-free analysis that is insightful and a sheer pleasure to read. Considering the public fatigue with the subject matter, the authors' achievement in this regard cannot be underestimated.
From the Publisher
We are now all well acquainted with the fallout of scandal-driven political journalism, but most of us have little sense of where it comes from, and even less of a notion of what to do about it. In Peepshow, Sabato and Lichter—two leading critics of media conduct in the political science academy—have teamed with Mark Stencel, politics editor for, to pull back the curtain on the machinery of scandal, stressing the central role of campaign operatives in slinging the muck of 'character'.
The Hotline (National Journal)
In lucid, illuminating prose that invites the reader to breeze through the entertaining book in one sitting (a book of this nature could easily be overly pedantic), the authors provide context to the recent sea change in media attitudes. . . . Too many of the recent quickie books in the post-Monica era have been either cobbled-together accounts of the sequence of events or ideological rants from Clinton haters or apologists. University of Virginia professor Sabato, scribe Stencel, and Center for Media and Public Affairs president Lichter offer a bias-free analysis that is insightful and a sheer pleasure to read. Considering the public fatigue with the subject matter, the authors' achievement in this regard cannot be underestimated.
Publishers Weekly
. . .treading carefully through complex terrain, Stencel, Lichter and Sabato manage to illuminate workable guidelines for navigating the line betwen public and private.
Indianapolis Star
Warnings well worth heeding!
The Weekly Standard
Sabato, Stencel, and Lichter aren't calling for a return to a bewigged, courtly gentility that never quite existed anyway. They well understand the demands placed upon editors and reporters anxious not to be scooped by the competition, as well as the greater fecundity of information tidbits expected in modern times by the reading and viewing public. Instead, they would have us all-especially professional journalists and all who inform or form opinion-step back and reflect upon the effects, political and otherwise, of recent spates of systematic scandal journalism, and in so doing they offer ways to to raise editorial standards, increase journalistic credibility, and provide reasonable protections to those who seek public office.'
Morton Kondracke
Three of America's best political analysts have brilliantly tackled a grisly truth: sex and scandal have been institutionalized in American politics, with 'oppo' researchers digging not just through an adversary's old speeches and voting records, but divorce papers and the garbage. A must read (and weep).
Morton Kondracke
Hotline The (National Journal)
In lucid, illuminating prose that invites the reader to breeze through the entertaining book in one sitting (a book of this nature could easily be overly pedantic), the authors provide context to the recent sea change in media attitudes... Too many of the recent quickie books in the post-Monica era have been either cobbled-together accounts of the sequence of events or ideological rants from Clinton haters or apologists. University of Virginia professor Sabato, scribe Stencel, and Center for Media and Public Affairs president Lichter offer a bias-free analysis that is insightful and a sheer pleasure to read. Considering the public fatigue with the subject matter, the authors' achievement in this regard cannot be underestimated.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Here, joining forces with news editor Stencel and media analyst Lichter, Sabato (University of Virginia) revisits questions he originally raised in his 1991 book Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics. In that text, he proposed that a politician's private life should be subject to public scrutiny only in limited circumstances, such as when it comes to health and use of public funds--not regarding internal family matters and past sexual activity. In this latest analysis of the relationship between the media and electoral politics, the authors attempt to make sense of the state of the media and several recent political contretemps, and show how the guidelines laid out in Feeding Frenzy are less and less applied. Today's accelerated news cycles, they suggest, contribute to the escalation of reporting with weaker standards of proof (they also assert that candidates who campaign on popular television shows--think Leno and Letterman-- cheapen political discourse). The authors flesh out their arguments with case studies: press coverage of Georgia attorney general Michael Bowers's adultery, they argue, was legitimate (if overemphatic), since he admitted publicly to the infidelity and supported state laws criminalizing adultery; reporters' accusations that New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani committed adultery, on the other hand, were questionable, since there was no evidence. Even with these salutary standards, the authors acknowledge that gray areas remain; deciding what constitutes hypocrisy, they note, can be highly subjective. Still, treading carefully through complex terrain, Stencel, Lichter and Sabato manage to illuminate workable guidelines for navigating the line between public and private. (Apr.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780742500112
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/28/2001
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.58 (w) x 8.64 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Larry J. Sabato is director of the Center for Governmental Studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and author of numerous books including Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics. Mark Stencel is politics editor for and coauthor with CNN's Larry King of On the Line: The New Road to the White House. S. Robert Lichter is president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., and editor of the online magazine Newswatch. His books include The Media Elite and Good Intentions Make Bad News.

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Read an Excerpt

As a disseminator of the 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 for the old.

    —Two of Eugene Meyer's "principles" for the Washington Post, which were published after he purchased the newspaper in 1933. The complete principles are still posted in the newspaper's lobby and are reaffirmed in its style manual for reporters and editors.

Chapter One


The press is on trial with readers and viewers. The charge: Unnecessary violation of the privacy of politicians and their families. Mainstream American political journalism offers an indicting array of examples in recent years, including coverage of extramarital affairs, office romances, divorces, drug use, drinking, sexuality, illegitimate children and plain, unsubstantiated rumor. Individual cases can be made to justify almost any news story that fell into these categories. Collectively, however, the predominance of such so-called character questions is eroding the credibility of political journalists and turning American democracy into a sort of peepshow or soap opera. Public opinion surveys suggest that journalists have stepped over the line most—but not all—Americans would set for legitimate editorial inquiry. Whether reporters, editors and producers are in fact guilty of violating the standards of their own profession depends on whether there really are any standards in an age of multimedia competition among informationsources.

    Journalists do not like to follow the rules, largely because they do not like to set them—especially when it comes to politicians. "It is hard to have guidelines, since stories keep coming along that defy previous precedents," said Walter Isaacson, managing editor of Time magazine. "However I tend to be cautious about delving into a candidate's private life and it tends to make me uncomfortable. There's a smell test: You can usually tell whether you're considering a story because it is truly relevant to a candidate's character or, on the other hand, because it's titillating and you're just trying to be sensational."

    For Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the Washington Post, there are no blanket rules, although there are broad standards that cover politicians' private lives—with wide latitude for individual news judgment. "We take everything on a case-by-case basis depending on the two standards we impose. First, can it be proven to be true? And second, is it relevant to the candidacy?"

    But who draws the line between relevant and irrelevant? Morton Kondracke, editor of the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call and a regular television commentator, applies a Potter Stewart test to this question, paraphrasing the Supreme Court justice's famous definition of obscenity: "I don't know what the line is, but I know it when I see it."

    While the public shows consistently little interest in the private lives of elected officials, that view is not unanimous, with greater interest in a candidate's personal foibles among Republicans than Democrats, according to survey data. The need to serve the news interests of all readers might argue then for complete examination of each and every candidate's closet. But since some stories about the personal lives of political figures—such as news about their children—rarely, if ever, appear in print or on the air, the effective news standard is clearly less than full disclosure.

    Once, editors required a clear intersection between a politician's private behavior and his public responsibilities to deem a story newsworthy. But many stories fall in a broad zone between private and public. Does any candidate who has ever posed for a family photo for a campaign brochure make his or her marriage or parenting an issue? Does voting on abortion issues make an abortion in one's own past an issue? While these are subjective decisions for individual journalists and news organizations, a candidate's public response to any such question in effect legitimizes a subject for coverage elsewhere.

    Judging the behavior of the press requires more specific guidelines for gauging the relevancy of particular stories. In more than a decade of research, analysis and journalism, the authors have endorsed a "fairness doctrine" that offers rough editorial suggestions for separating personal matters that generally should—and should not—be considered relevant and newsworthy. Our proposed guidelines and accompanying qualifiers, first presented in Larry J. Sabato's Feeding Frenzy in 1991, provide a useful prism through which to begin an examination of the political case studies discussed in detail throughout this chapter and the rest of this volume.

    None of the conduct described below automatically disqualifies a politician from holding public office. Such decisions are for the voters, who will always have to choose their leaders from a pool of flawed human beings. Our suggestions merely offer a tool to journalists. It is up to individual editors, reporters and producers to decide how best to inform their readers and viewers, each of whom may have a unique standard of conduct for the political leaders he or she entrusts.

    Our proposal simply divides private conduct into two categories: behavior that generally should be covered by the press and behavior that in most cases should not. Some of the examples cited below and throughout this book violate our own standards for news reporting but are essential to understanding the decisions that political editors and senior producers now routinely face.


    1. All of a candidate's personal and professional finances (investments, transactions, earnings, taxes, and so on), and the financial arrangements of his or her spouse or immediate family to the extent that they directly bear on the financial well-being of the candidate.

    Media reports about rumors of drug use, heavy drinking and alleged draft-dodging by Texas governor George W. Bush during the early stages of the 2000 presidential campaign were controversial. But news reports about Bush's business dealings in Texas before he became governor, even allegations with little substantiation, drew few objections from the public or from media critics. Among the financial matters that journalists investigated: a 1990 offshore oil-drilling contract with Bahrain, which the Persian Gulf emirate awarded to a company that Bush advised as a board member during his father's White House administration, and Bush's $15 million share of the 1998 sale of the Texas Rangers baseball team, in which he had invested a little over $600,000. The public and the press are far more comfortable rummaging through a candidate's checkbook than his or her bedsheets and liquor cabinet.

    The same comfort level with a candidate's finances was evident in coverage of President Clinton, whose much-investigated Whitewater real-estate investment and related matters were treated far less gingerly by reporters during his first term in office than Paula Jones's allegations about his sexual misconduct. One reason for the difference between those cases is that money often suggests opportunities for corruption that directly relates to official responsibility. Another reason is that financial transactions by their very nature are often simpler to document than allegations of extramarital sex or substance abuse. Government and private audits, financial disclosure statements and bank transactions are more easily obtained than lipstick-smeared collars and semen-stained dresses.

    In financial matters, however, there is an element of interpretation that often means the case is never closed in the eyes of the press. Republican Bob Dole's 1996 campaign for president answered many questions about his family's financial dealings that his aides had already addressed during his 1988 campaign for the White House. Among them: Elizabeth Dole's purchase of a Florida condo from agriculture executive Dwayne Andreas, whose company benefited from her husband's actions in Congress, and the Doles' knowledge of business dealings involving a former Dole fund-raiser who administered a blind trust for Elizabeth Dole and profited by some of the fund's activities. Had Elizabeth Dole remained a candidate in the race for the 2000 presidential nomination, those questions undoubtedly would have resurfaced.

    2. A candidate's health to the extent that it may affect his or her performance in office.

    The case of Texas Democrat Henry B. Gonzalez, who represented his San Antonio congressional district from 1961 to 1999, will not surprise anyone who is cynical about the importance of those who serve in government. The former House Banking Committee chairman spent more than half of his final two-year term in Congress at home in Texas recovering from a heart ailment. The Texas media took little notice of the congressman's extended absence until a July 1998 story in the Houston Chronicle—almost a year after Gonzalez's last vote in the House. But even then few were willing to comment on the record about the legendary lawmaker's decision to stay in office rather than retire before the end of the term, as he originally promised. Gonzalez returned to work two months later—fourteen months after he'd left and shortly before his son won the campaign to succeed him.

    Generally speaking, medical problems are not as much of an issue in congressional races as they are in presidential campaigns. Some members of Congress have held office and even been reelected despite debilitating illnesses. Republican Karl Mundt of South Dakota, for instance, suffered a severe stroke in 1969 but served out the remaining three years of his final term without ever returning to the Capitol. More recently, voters in Texas Democrat Frank M. Tejeda's district reelected him with more than 70 percent of the vote while he underwent treatment for a malignant brain tumor. Tejeda died in January 1997, days after taking the oath of office for his third term at a private hospital ceremony in San Antonio. If Tejeda had not represented a safe Democratic district, his health might have been a factor in his last campaign, as it was in the 1992 North Carolina Senate race, in which voters ousted incumbent Terry Sanford a month after heart surgery sidelined the seventy-five-year-old Democrat.

    Medical matters are a more significant issue in presidential politics. Voters care about the health and stamina of the person they will entrust with the nation's most demanding job, as well as oversight of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Candidate Paul E. Tsongas, a Democratic runner-up in the 1992 White House race, often bristled when asked about the cancer that drove him from the Senate after his first and only term ended in 1984. But in August 1992, the same month Tsongas would have accepted his party's presidential nomination had he bested Clinton in the primaries, doctors found a growth in the former senator's abdomen. A biopsy performed two weeks after the November 1992 election determined that the growth was cancerous and Tsongas began chemotherapy treatment the following month. A president-elect facing such a serious medical problem in the period between Election Day and his or her inauguration might cause a serious political crisis.

    Despite Tsongas's irritation with questions about his cancer, the scrutiny of his health during the 1992 primaries was completely justified—especially since political ambition is itself an incurable disease. "The last living cell that will die in my body is the desire to be president of the United States," Tsongas once told reporters. "And there is no treatment for it."

    3. Any incident or charge that reaches the police blotters or a civil or criminal court.

    For those who make laws, any violation, no matter how minor, is a legitimate news story—and often a political death sentence. A car accident in 1995 cost North Carolina Republican David Funderburk a $25 fine, $60 in court expenses, and ultimately a second term in the House of Representatives. Even after he pleaded no contest to a minor traffic offense, the former Eagle Scout and his wife insisted she was driving when their car forced a van off a remote stretch of highway. Witnesses at the scene said that the congressman was in fact behind the wheel and switched places with his wife after driving a half-mile down the road from the accident, which injured two adults and their four-year-old daughter. Funderburk also bruised his reputation in the accident, which the local press covered extensively. A year later, Funderburk's Democratic rival used the incident in a damning television ad in a successful campaign to oust the GOP freshman.

    Some routine police matters involving political figures, from fender-benders to marital spats, inevitably draw more media attention than they deserve. In June 1999, Representative James Moran's wife called police to the couple's home in Alexandria, Virginia, to break up an argument. No charges were filed against the Virginia Democrat, who once made national headlines after he and another lawmaker got into a shoving match just off the House floor. But Mary Moran, who filed for divorce the day after the incident in the Moran home, told police and local reporters that her husband grabbed and pushed her. In his own court filing a month after the altercation, the congressman said his wife "routinely threatened to humiliate and embarrass the defendant, and to destroy his career by making false and scurrilous accusations against him to the police and the press." In this case, the Washington Times and the Washington Post both played stories about the local congressman's domestic policy squabble appropriately inside the newspaper. While fertile ground for gossip, the information in court and police files is often unfair and unbalanced—notoriously so in divorce cases. While newsworthy, such stories require careful handling.

    4. Sexual activity where there is a clear intersection between an official's public and private roles; for example, relationships with staff members and lobbyists, where elements of coercion or conflict of interest inherently exist.

    President Clinton is far from the only politician to have been caught in a compromising position with a member of his staff. Republican Mike Bowers was perhaps his party's best hope for winning the Georgia governorship since Reconstruction, before he admitted to a longstanding extramarital relationship with his secretary in 1997. Bowers's strong support with Christian conservatives suffered after his confession, and the former front-runner suddenly faced GOP primary challengers, falling poll numbers and calls from prominent Republicans that he drop out of the race. Bowers's standing took another hit the following April, when former secretary Anne Davis began granting interviews about their affair to George magazine and local media. Davis said Bowers provided ongoing financial support of $400 to $600 a month throughout their fifteen-year relationship. Bowers immediately ended the payments, which he said his wife supported as "humanitarian" help for Davis to deal with a heart condition. But a financial and romantic relationship of this sort with a paid state employee raised thorny questions that reporters and some previously supportive state party leaders could not ignore. Ultimately those questions dogged the candidate throughout the primary campaign and cost him his party's nomination—although Bowers's stronger than expected showing in the primary almost pushed the Republican race into a runoff.

    Relationships like the Bowers-Davis affair are not uncommon in politics or in any professional setting, including newsrooms, colleges and other institutions. Unfortunately, justified scrutiny of such affairs should not give way to unfair—and usually unsubstantiated—speculation about other close relationships between political figures and key advisers of the opposite sex. Cristyne F. Lategano, the communications director for New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani, attributed rumors and media reports about her relationship with her boss to such sexism. "When a woman works closely with her male boss, it's called intimate," Lategano said in 1997. "When a male does the same, it's called loyal." Former South Carolina governor Beasley similarly accused his opponents of "blatant sexism" when they raised questions about his relationship with a key female staffer. Colorado governor Roy Romer also accused prying journalists of "sexism" when he was questioned during his two reelection campaigns about a rumored affair with his deputy chief of staff, B. J. Thornberry. "If B. J. Thornberry had been a man, this issue would never be here," the governor said when the rumor first appeared in print in an alternative newspaper in 1990. "It's one of the problems that women have, I think, in the workplace. How can they be viewed for what they are and what their talents are rather than the fact that they are female." Eight years later, Romer undermined that argument when he confessed to a longstanding "affectionate"—but not "sexual"—extramarital relationship with his former top aide and close adviser. Romer's 1998 admission was prompted by the publication of images from a secretly recorded surveillance video that showed the governor and Thornberry engaged in a six-minute kiss at a Washington, D.C., airport.

    Extramarital affairs are not the only romantic/professional relationships that invite scrutiny. Even relationships between unmarried partners can pose potential conflicts, as Kentucky lieutenant governor Steve Henry found out at the start of his losing 1998 Senate bid. As Henry was preparing to launch his campaign for the Democratic nomination in 1997, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported that he briefly dated a corrections officer who negotiated a union contract when he was a county commissioner. Henry said there was no link between the relationship and the county contract, which he had voted to approve. "I think it's time we leave people's social lives alone," Henry said. "As lieutenant governor, it would be inappropriate to expect me never to date anyone in state government. My responsibility is to make sure whoever I date has no special advantages or disadvantages because they date me."

    Henry's protests aside, workplace relationships involving political figures raise questions that journalists often cannot ignore, including questions about favoritism, harassment and worse. Nonetheless, some discreet office romances escape press attention. Even in the overheated rampage through the private past of members of Congress during the House impeachment debate, few news organizations revisited Clinton defender John Conyers's 1990 marriage to a twenty-five-year-old former intern in his congressional office. The Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat was a sixty-one-year-old bachelor at the time of the very private wedding. Conyers's new bride had their first child one month later.

    The press also ignored House Speaker Newt Gingrich's romance with a House committee aide. The relationship with Callista Bisek only received widespread attention in the summer of 1999, seven months after Gingrich left office, when a supermarket tabloid staked out the couple's comings and goings in Washington and a Georgia judge ordered the Hill staffer deposed as part of the former Speaker's divorce proceedings. Rumors of the Gingrich-Bisek affair circulated before then. Bisek was identified in a 1995 Vanity Fair profile of Gingrich as the Speaker's "favorite breakfast companion," a reference that was repeated at the time in a London newspaper and by Time magazine columnist Margaret Carlson. During the impeachment debate last year, the muckraking online magazine Salon mentioned "persistent (though unproven) rumors" about a Gingrich affair in a September 1998 article. A few months later, Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt alluded vaguely to Bisek in the Flynt Report, his glossy report about congressional misdeeds, identifying her at the end of a two-page spread on the Speaker as a former congressman's aide.

    For a mainstream news organization, taking the story beyond such rumor-mongering would have required an invasive investigation and stakeout, much like the one the Star tabloid conducted after Gingrich retired. Despite the Miami Herald's 1987 stakeout of Gary Hart and Donna Rice, most journalists have little appetite for such snooping, even on legitimate stories like the Gingrich-Bisek relationship.

    5. Sexual activity that is compulsive and/or manifestly indiscreet, and therefore potentially dangerous.

    Republican senator Bob Packwood of Oregon set the standard for this kind of conduct. A thirty-three-month Senate ethics probe, prompted by a 1992 Washington Post report, identified almost twenty women who accused the fifth-term lawmaker of inappropriate sexual advances, including sticking his tongue into women's mouths and propositioning one woman for sex. Packwood apologized for his actions, which he said were "unwelcome and insensitive," but waged a protracted fight to save his job. In September 1995, the Ethics Committee recommended that the Senate expel the senator for sexual and official misconduct. Packwood resigned the next day.

    Accusations about Bill Clinton raise similar questions about the president's sex life. The various sins he has acknowledged make him the very personification of compulsive and indiscreet sexual behavior in public office. Yet, in fairness, the evidence supporting some of the accusations against Clinton underscores the difficulties that journalists face in handling such charges. Former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones accused Clinton of luring her to a Little Rock hotel room in 1991, when she says he dropped his pants and requested oral sex. Former White House aide Kathleen E. Willey accused him of groping her during an extended embrace in a hallway near the Oval Office in 1993. Juanita Broaddrick, an Arkansas nursing home operator, said he sexually assaulting her in a hotel room in 1978, when then-state attorney general Clinton was a candidate for governor. The facts in all three cases are somewhat contradictory, inconclusive, and in many ways impossible to prove or disprove. That makes deciding how to fairly present these significant allegations to readers and viewers difficult for news decisionmakers.

    In the Broaddrick case, NBC News had the first on-the-record interview with Broaddrick about her charges, but waited until the story appeared in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post to air its account because some top network officials were not satisfied with the level of substantiation. "I kept asking for more information and more cross-checking and more digging, and that takes time," NBC News president Andrew Lack told the Post.

    Stories about patterns of sexual misconduct impose the same burdens of proof that journalists accept when writing about a single, private sexual relationship or incident. However, the number and type of accusations multiply those burdens. Legal and ethical implications—is the alleged conduct illegal?—are also a consideration for journalists, who are hesitant to print or broadcast de facto editorial indictments. On the other hand, decision-making is easier when the alleged conduct is already the subject of an official investigation, such as an independent counsel or House Judiciary Committee investigation or a Senate Ethics Committee probe. These sorts of inquiries can serve as a news hook for such a story. Fortunately, allegations like those about Packwood and Clinton rarely arise, even in this period of political scandal and private scrutiny. But a 1995 remark by then-senator Alan K. Simpson on the day of Bob Packwood's resignation suggests that this might be a more significant area of investigation than one might hope or expect. "Expelling someone for something that does not even reach the level of sexual harassment is a stunning decision," the Wyoming Republican said. "I looked around that room [the Senate chamber] and saw people who had done things much worse than that."

    6. Any ongoing private behavior that is potentially or actually debilitating, such as alcohol or drug abuse.

    Two months after the Washington Post broke the story about Senator Bob Packwood's alleged sexual misconduct, the Oregonian newspaper in Portland published a lengthy article documenting the Republican lawmaker's "binge drinking." The newspaper said eleven friends, employees, and family members, including Packwood's ex-wife, thought the senator should seek treatment for his drinking. It also said Packwood's alcohol consumption led to "embarrassing personal situations" and "occasionally interfere[d] with Senate business." Two years later, Packwood himself suggested that his drinking had contributed to his downfall, telling CBS that he drank so heavily at one point in his life that he could not remember many of the alleged incidents of sexual misconduct he was accused of. "That doesn't excuse the conduct," Packwood said, "but I simply can't remember." Coverage of Packwood's heavy drinking before his narrow reelection in 1992 might have headed off the tawdry two-and-a-half-year investigation of the Oregon senator, which consumed much of the Senate's time from 1992 to 1995. But the subject received no attention before the Post's 1992 exposé, even though the senator's drinking habits were apparently well known before the official investigation of his unwelcome sexual advances.

    Times are changing for political lushes. Reporters are much more willing to investigate alcohol use than they were in an earlier era, when the press routinely ignored drinking by politicians, even public drunkenness on the floor of the House and Senate. A clear turning point came in 1974, when the House stripped Arkansas Democrat Wilbur Mills of his chairmanship of the Ways and Means Committee after news reports about his drunken adventures with Fanne Foxe, a Washington stripper known as the "Argentine Firecracker." Among Mills's exploits with Foxe: A late-night swim in the Potomac Tidal Basin after police stopped the congressman's car for speeding through Washington without its headlights on, and an inebriated onstage appearance by the congressman at a Boston strip club.

    While the Mills story set a precedent that still applies today, journalists are nonetheless just as anxious covering stories about politicians' libations as they are with stories about politicians' libidos. As with stories about sexual indiscretions, the journalistic concern is proof: Minus a Breathalyzer test, a police report, or an on-the-record comment, proving "excessive" drinking is difficult. Cultural questions can also cloud coverage of political drinking. As Democrat Raymond L. Flynn was gearing up to run for Massachusetts governor in 1997, the former Boston mayor and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican accused the Boston Globe of an anti-Irish Catholic bias for writing a lengthy story about his drinking habits.

    The Globe article suggested that Flynn understated both the frequency the and amount of his drinking, but said there was no indication that alcohol affected his public duties. The article also noted that, as mayor, Flynn frequently drank late into the night in Boston pubs, often with Globe reporters and editors. The decision to publish and document the longstanding rumors about Flynn's alcohol consumption sparked a journalistic debate. The political editor at the Boston Herald, the Globe's rival, and other local reporters and columnists questioned why Flynn was targeted for coverage when former Republican governor William Weld was also known for occasional heavy imbibing. The CBS news show 60 Minutes, which ran a segment by correspondent Mike Wallace on the Globe story, even retrieved file footage of an apparently inebriated Weld slurring his way through his 1995 victory speech. But Globe ombudsman Jack Thomas was correct in defending the newspaper against the criticism of readers and veteran journalists who said incidents of Flynn's public drunkenness were not newsworthy:

[T]he rules have changed. At a time when the public struggles with the damaging effects of alcohol, when teachers worry about drinking among teenagers, when newspapers report carnage because of drunk drivers, and when colleges hold press conferences to explain why students have drunk themselves to death, any newspaper that ignores a pattern of public drunkenness by a candidate for governor has ethics made of eggshells.

    The public apparently sided with the Globe in this debate. In a November 1997 poll by the newspaper and WBZ-TV, nearly 60 percent of likely voters surveyed said the media should report instances of public drunkenness involving a gubernatorial hopeful. Flynn eventually abandoned his 1998 bid for governor to run for an open U.S. House seat. He lost the Democratic primary race, his first defeat in a thirty-year career in politics.

    7. Any illegal drug use (whether ongoing or not) that has occurred as an adult, and any incident in the same period in which the candidate has condoned the use of illegal drugs in his or her presence, whether participating or not.

    Many government employees, especially those who serve in sensitive positions requiring a security clearance, must answer standard questions on their job applications about past drug use. Those who apply for work through the voting booth do not have to fill out job applications, but it is reasonable to expect anyone who seeks a position of public trust to answer the same questions that he or she would have to ask potential staff members. Texas governor George W. Bush suggested this standard during the early stages of the Republican presidential race in 1999, when he was refusing to respond to unsubstantiated rumors that he had used cocaine. Initially, Bush said questions about his behavior when he was in his twenties were unfair. "When I was young and irresponsible I was young and irresponsible," he told Newsweek. Nine months later, when a journalist asked about the drug-use questions routinely submitted to applicants for senior government jobs, Bush amended his answer, saying he would have met the standards for employment imposed on top officials at any time during his father's term in the White House. Based on President George Bush's initial hiring policy in the 1980s, which ruled out candidates for senior positions who admitted using drugs in the previous fifteen years, his son effectively denied illegal drug use after 1974, when he was twenty-eight.

    The standard proposed by George W. Bush has the benefit of being flexible, since it will change with public attitudes and government hiring policies related to past drug use. The White House administration of Bush's father, for example, turned its fifteen-year rule into a ten-year rule after finding that past use of illegal drugs was so common among baby boomers that the original policy eliminated many of the best-qualified candidates for a number of top jobs. By applying the rules imposed on any employee who would report to an officeholder, the Bush standard also ensures that a candidate faces a level of scrutiny that is appropriate to the job he or she is seeking.

    Whether Bush's 1999 answer to the drug question met his own standard is debatable. At the time, the federal questionnaire for "national security positions" required applicants to acknowledge any illegal drug use in the past seven years. But the Clinton administration advised those seeking senior government jobs to admit to any illegal drug use since turning eighteen. Answers to these questions are confidential for prospective government workers, but since no agency other than the press—and perhaps one's political enemies—screens prospective elected officials, what level of disclosure should be applied to a candidate?

    Voters have shown themselves to be reasonable employers when it comes to questions about substance abuse, which argues for the strictest interpretation of the Bush standard for disclosure. In 1998, Georgia state senator Mark Taylor confirmed that he used marijuana and cocaine while in his twenties after a source sent the Macon Telegraph copies of his sealed deposition from a 1992 custody fight. Taylor's opponents in the 1998 lieutenant governor's race tried to make an issue of his admitted drug use, which he said ended fifteen years earlier, after he learned that his wife was pregnant. Despite his rival's snipes—and a brutal, unsubstantiated television advertisement that suggested he had an ongoing narcotics problem—Taylor prevailed in the Democratic primary, a runoff vote and the general election that fall.

    8. Any private behavior (whether or not included in the above categories) that involves the use of public funds or taxpayer-subsidized facilities in a substantial way.

    Abuse of power includes abuse of the perks of power. In 1993, for example, President Clinton denied charges that Arkansas state troopers in his personal security detail helped arrange sexual liaisons with various women during Clinton's tenure as governor. Since taxpayers and campaign contributors subsidize so many aspects of public life, from security and transportation to meals and phone calls, charges must be "substantial" to justify a significant intrusion into a politician's private life. During the final days of the 1994 governor's race in Colorado, Roy Romer's Republican challenger accused the incumbent Democrat of using taxpayer funds to make long-distance cellular phone calls to the home of former top aide B. J. Thornberry, the woman with whom Romer later acknowledged a longtime "affectionate" relationship. Responding to a flurry of press questions generated by the GOP nominee's veiled, eleventh-hour swipe in a TV interview, the governor's staff released documents showing that he had already reimbursed the state for almost all of the calls. The other calls, spokesmen said, were on official business, since Thornberry still advised Romer on political and policy matters, including land use issues she dealt with in a new post at the Interior Department in Washington, D.C. The taxpayer's total tab for these phone calls: $18.03. Romer was reelected by a wide margin the following week.


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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 The Scene of the Crime Chapter 2 Precedent Chapter 3 Motive Chapter 4 Unindicted Coconspirators Chapter 5 Out of Order Chapter 6 The Verdict Chapter 7 The Muck Stops Here Chapter 8 Exhibit A: Case Studies Chapter 9 Exhibit B: In Their Own Defense

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