# 506  

March 2004



Should the Mainstream Press Ignore Internet Rumors of a Political Candidate's Infidelity?


by Amy Ridenour

 

Two reasons are usually given by those who believe the news media should ignore Internet rumors about a political candidate's alleged infidelity.

The first is that marital infidelity is a private issue, and as such, should only be covered by the mainstream press in extreme circumstances.

The second is that the rumors may not be true.

As every educated person now knows, John F. Kennedy had numerous adulterous affairs. The Washington press corps knew about it - and covered it up. In doing so, a handful of reporters and editors decided on behalf of the American people, without soliciting their opinion or acquiring their consent, that certain facts about Kennedy weren't pertinent to the question of fitness for office and the public was not entitled to know about them.

The public doesn't need a nanny. It deserves the truth.

Many voters believe that adulterous behavior reveals flaws a person's character, and prefer to vote for persons of integrity. They believe the country benefits from being able to trust that their leader means what he's saying - even if they disagree with his views. They also believe that a man who can be tempted to hurt his wife might do the same to his country.

Other people claim sexual misbehavior somehow exists in a different realm than other areas of life, and that a person who violates moral standards in the sexual arena is no more likely to be otherwise immoral than anyone else. They will cite for you historical figures who are known to have been adulterers, and who did a good job (at least in the opinion of some; few public figures lack detractors) in public service. But they have no way to know if the character flaw that made these persons succumb to adultery also made them less capable in public service than they otherwise might have been.

But we don't need a public consensus on adultery to know that how to judge a candidate is a decision that rightly belongs to individual voters, not to the press.

The second argument made against covering these Internet stories is that Internet rumors may be inaccurate. This is a wrongheaded argument: Widespread false stories about a person of consequence, particularly when they are unfairly negative, should be corrected. Otherwise, the public is left simply to guess at the truth, and to wonder if the press is taking sides. The mainstream press can provide a valuable public service by separating the libels from the truth.

The mainstream press may like to think that a story isn't a story unless it's covered by newspapers, but those days are gone. Matt Drudge says his website had two billion visits last year. The day President Bush announced support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a two-gender institution, 100,000 people read gay marriage advocate Andrew Sullivan's "Daily Dish" blog. The top blog "Instapundit" is said to get 100,000 visits a day routinely. These are respectable readership figures even by newspaper circulation standards. Like it or not, the Internet is a powerful news source.

No more can the mainstream press decide what is news, and what isn't. This is a good thing. Bring on the truth, and let the voters sort it out.

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Amy Ridenour is the president of The National Center for Public Policy Research. Comments may be sent to [email protected].



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