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When Dishing Dirt Is Dumb

July 4, 2004

Some Republicans are demanding that John Kerry open up the sealed records of his divorce from his first wife, Julia Thorne. This is a terrible idea. It’s embarrassing that Kerry even felt he had to discuss this non-issue. Talking to reporters, he commented at some length before hitting on the key phrase that covered all the necessary ground: “It’s none of anybody’s business, period.”

The Republican demand is in retaliation for a strange misadventure by the Chicago Tribune. Joined by television station WLS, the Trib went to court to unseal the divorce papers of Jack Ryan, the Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Illinois. Ryan is a wealthy Goldman Sachs partner who left his lucrative investment-banking job to teach inner-city students in Chicago. A Los Angeles judge unsealed the records. In them, Ryan’s then wife, Jeri Ryan, said he had taken her to sex clubs in Paris, New York and New Orleans, and had urged her to have sex with him while other people watched. (She refused.) As a result of this revelation, Ryan’s political support collapsed abruptly, and he gave up his bid for the Senate seat.

In part, the Trib leaned on Ryan because the leading candidate in the state’s Democratic Senate primary had grudgingly opened his own sealed divorce records after his ex-wife sought an order of protection against him. He then came in third in the primary. So the Trib was implicitly using the “no double standards” argument, just like the Republicans who are badgering Kerry. The Trib offered a slightly more high-minded explanation for its determination to get a judge to dish the dirt on Ryan: “The voters can judge whether the contents are pertinent to Ryan’s fitness for office. We think they are.”

Judging by the Trib’s self-righteous prose, you could be pardoned for thinking we were discussing the Pentagon Papers, not a mildly kinky sexual request that was never acted upon. How is this the business of the news media? A reader wrote the Trib: “What goes on between a man and his wife behind the figurative bedroom door is entirely a private matter beyond the province of responsible journalism.”

Ryan is not a very sympathetic figure. He apparently told the Republican leadership that there was nothing embarrassing in his divorce records, and some Republicans are bitter about being misled. But after the disclosure, Ryan said he had broken no commandment and no law and had never cheated on his wife. Jeri Ryan said that, as far as she knew, this was true. Let’s hope the Tribune’s lawyers don’t find out there are people already in the Senate who have done much worse.

Despite its lack of judgment, the Tribune had a solid legal case. After the fierce public reaction against the paper’s humiliation of Ryan, the Trib ran an editorial pointing out that in just about every U.S. jurisdiction, divorce records “are wide open to scrutiny by anyone — friends, neighbors, reporters. You cannot have them closed to scrutiny.”

But the Trib’s behavior was awful — mounting a big legal effort that knocked Ryan out of contention over a rejected sex fantasy and breaking the story under a splashy front-page headline, “Ryan File a Bombshell.” The clincher is that both Ryan and his ex-wife wanted to keep the divorce records private, a request the Tribune should have respected. The gap between what the Trib did and what the sleazy tabloids do all the time is not a large one.

When should the news media pursue and reveal sexual details about politicians? How about this? Almost never. It’s probably best to stick mainly to cases involving serious claims of victimization (turn reporters loose on Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Clinton). Unfortunately, reporters find it hard to let go of the hypocrisy excuse for invading privacy — if a pol has ever come out in favor of marital fidelity, he is fair game for sexual reporting. But this can’t be a good idea. It puts “anything goes” philanderers off-limits and targets only the backers of traditional moral values.

The hypocrisy excuse was a low hum in the background of the Jack Ryan case. One of the Tribune’s legal briefs identified him as a “family values” candidate (the evidence for this perilous status did not turn up in my computer search), so apparently it was somehow OK to go gunning for him.

Not drawing lines between what is public and what is properly private has the obvious effect of keeping more and more first-rate people out of politics. In the Ryan case, the court decided that the unsealing of the candidate’s divorce records was important because of the “higher level of (public) interest” in Ryan triggered by his decision to run for the Senate. In plain English, this amounts to a warning: If you want to avoid an especially high level of sexual scrutiny, stay out of politics. Does anyone really think this kind of norm will improve our political culture?

From → Politics

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