Press at its best — or just documenting dirt?

Monday, December 21, 1998


Porn publisher Larry Flynt finally got fed up with the mainstream press
horning in on his franchise.


For months, the sex, sin and sensationalism of the Clinton-Lewinsky story
was the purview of the major media. Then in October Flynt decided to add
Hustler to the media mix by offering $1 million for information about
the sexual affairs of high government officials. That newsgathering shortcut
quickly bore results.


Last week, on the eve of an impeachment vote in the House, Hustler
apparently was closing in on a story about extramarital affairs by
Republican congressman Bob Livingston of Louisiana when the speaker-elect
decided to disclose the story himself. Forty hours later, Livingston
announced he would resign from Congress.


Flynt has promised to dish more dirt about a dozen other government figures
when the New Year arrives. Despite the fact that 19 days later he’ll be in a
Cincinnati courtroom facing charges of distributing obscenity, the
pornographer is a player.


The presence of Larry Flynt at the press table raises some interesting
questions about propriety, privacy and paying for the news. What should be a
part of the recriminations and ruminations, however, is the fact that there
is an unbroken link between Larry Flynt and the earliest days of the press
in America.


As for modern times, revelations of sexual infidelity by a political figure
have become rather routine and usually set off a now-familiar dance:
Journalists inquire about a sexual indiscretion by a well-known politician,
the politician attempts to duck the damage by announcing with heavy heart
that he has hurt his family and others, his colleagues blame political
enemies for tipping off the press, and then vow to continue to do the
people’s work without being intimidated by such vicious and un-American
tactics.


So, as members of Congress decried “the politics of personal destruction”
and the mainstream press played catch-up, media critics and ethicists began
to examine the journalism of prudery, puritanism and the personal. They
raise fair questions, but often neglect context.


Should the press pay for the news? Cash for trash is not new to journalism
nor to this particular story. For example, Larry Flynt’s tactics could be
compared to the “opposition research” so popular among political candidates
today, or to Richard Mellon Scaife’s contribution of $2.4 million to
American Spectator to finance its “Arkansas Project” investigation of
Bill Clinton. (Remember it was the American Spectator article that
burned Paula Jones, that prompted a lawsuit against President Clinton, that
led the Supreme Court to allow the suit to proceed, that provided an opening
for the Office of Independent counsel to investigate, that resulted in a
report to Congress, that led to impeachment.)


Who knows where Flynt’s promised journalistic revelations will lead? But no
matter where, journalists who care about their credibility and the truth
should not follow Flynt’s example. Checkbook journalism tarnishes the
reputation of journalists as well as their targets. When journalists offer
money for news, more often they get what they pay for rather than the
unvarnished facts.


Is it proper for the press to pry into personal matters that have no
apparent bearing on official duties and action?


Proper or not, it is inevitable. Typically, journalists and their editors
invoke a higher purpose for documenting dirt, explaining that it’s about
character, dishonesty, hypocrisy or lying, but the fact is that they are led
inexorably down a path worn smooth by the frustrated prosecutor, the
vindictive partisan or the driven moralist.


And it is not as if the press has never been there and done that. Thus we’ve
had The Washington Post reporting on Congressman Wayne Hays’ affair
with Elizabeth Ray, the stories about Wilbur Mills and Fanny Fox, the
Miami Herald‘s staking out of Gary Hart and Donna Rice, CNN’s
impertinent question to President Bush, and in the last few months the
disclosures about Rep. Dan Burton of Indiana, Rep. Helen Chenoweth of Idaho,
and House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde.


The mainstream press has exercised restraint and responsibility, too. During
the last presidential campaign, the networks and major newspapers ignored
stories about an extramarital affair by Republican candidate Bob Dole during
the early ’70s. More than 50 news organizations turned down the story about
Rep. Hyde before an online magazine published it. And when it comes to
infidelity on the part of occupants of the White House, the press seems more
often to have looked the other way.


But there is an unmistakable tradition of the journalism of sex and sin
going back to the very beginnings of our nation and to a printer named James
Callender, who was angry with Thomas Jefferson for not giving him a
political appointment. So Callender wrote the story reporting rumors about
an affair between Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.


Callender has been held up as an example of journalism’s worst impulses, for
sensationalizing, for invading privacy, for spreading salacious and
malicious tales.


The primary difference between Callender’s journalism and Larry Flynt’s is that
Callender’s work languished 200 years before DNA testing proved only that it was possibly true, whereas Flynt’s handiwork got results in 40 hours.


Holding up political figures to moral measurements always has been a risky
business for journalists. Even so, the nation is fortunate that the First
Amendment protects all of the press, even journalism on the fringe, even
“journalists” who have the most base of motives.


But that protection places a particular burden on responsible journalists to
strive to put such matters into perspective. Even if the press fails, we
can always trust in the goodwill and wisdom of people who are free to speak
their minds to determine whether such charges go down in history or wind up
in democracy’s dustbin.


Paul McMasters can be contacted a pmcmasters@freedomforum.org.