A reader writes:
You have asked your readers to weigh in on whether, or to what extent, it is legitimate for journalists to report on the family lives of politicians, particularly those who in some way make affirmative use of their families in their campaign speeches and literature. I think that to analyze this properly, a distinction has to be drawn between what matters are proper to report and what matters are proper to investigate.
If a journalist is given information about an alleged affair or scandalous material about a candidate's sexual behavior, there should not even be a thought of reporting the allegations if they are not proven by a high standard--not quite proof beyond a reasonable doubt, but close, let's call it "compelling" evidence. Why? The risk of error is too great, precisely because the allegation is scandalous. The less explosive the allegation, the fairer it is to report based on strong but not compelling evidence. Reporters should be given broad leeway to investigate, however, in order to determine how clear the proof is of a rumor or an allegation. In my view, reporting a scandalous rumor but noting that it only is a rumor is a cop out. It's poor journalism, because anyone can make up a rumor about anyone else and no one should be forced to give up their scarce campaign time to have to respond to or deny a report that is not grounded in real and substantial evidence.
But let's say the evidence is compelling that a candidate has been unfaithful to his or her spouse or has engaged in scandalous but not illegal behavior (e.g., views internet porn or frequented strip clubs as an adult but before holding any office). I do not think that the mere fact that the candidate engages in the usual amount of trotting out the spouse and kids should make reporting on that information justified. There are gray areas about "the usual amount," but bringing the kids to major speeches and swearing-in ceremonies; putting pictures of them in campaign literature and on campaign Christmas cards; and other cheesy but common uses, should not mean that everything that undercuts the image of familial rectitude is fair game.
Where does that leave us with Palin? I say leave the way she raises her children and her personal relationship with Todd alone; there is plenty to say about her lack of qualifications, her shallowness in responding to questions, her extreme positions on many issues, her support for brutal practices like aerial wolf hunting, and her dishonesty about her prior positions on global warming and the Bridge. The fact that she has obtained reimbursements for her children's travel expenses is no excuse to report on her mothering skills; it is, however, a highly relevant fact to debunk the image she has tried to portray of herself as an exceptionally frugal governor who turns down the usual perks and privileges of office.
These are all good points. With her very public pregnancy and labor and the birth of Trig Palin, however, we are in new territory. I don't believe that the way a newborn was displayed at the convention - and the obvious political and religious symbolism of deciding to go ahead with a Down Syndrome pregnancy as proof of your pro-life credentials - is the usual, formal presentation of a candidate's family. It intersects with an issue of public policy and the question of abortion rights which are, of course, central to the McCain-Palin campaign. Part of their political message is directed at the Christianist base on this very question. In fact, that is obviously one reason Palin was selected. I don't think it's fair to do all this, give Trig his own web-page on the state website - and then refuse to even answer the press's questions about the whole experience. I mean: Palin and her obstetrician, despite talking freely to the press in the past, refused to return the New York Times' phone calls in what most saw as a puff-piece last Monday. Why? Is the NYT not deferent enough?
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