Term Paper, 2006
10 Pages, Grade: 1,0
Why 'Anything Goes' Is not the Right Standard
What the Standard Should Be
The distinction between the public and the private side of an officeholder were once a clear matter. In the 1940s to beginning '60s, the press adhered to the "Rooseveltian rule" for press coverage: The private life of a public figure should stay private and undisclosed unless it seriously impinged on his or her public performance." (Sabato 30). This rule is per se soundly ethical, yet its application was lopsided in favor of the office-holder, the press keeping silent on personal flaws that infringed public performance. No reporter covered the fact that Roosevelt was a cripple, had a love affair and was severely ill in his last term; the media also remained silent on J.F. Kennedy's compulsive sexual behavior and extensive medication. This silence was part of the media's position to be friendly towards political office-holders, valuing the importance of political authority and stability. Reporting was "to serve and reinforce the political establishment" (Sabato 25). Extensive investigations could have endangered the American people's belief in their government, a seemingly inappropriate effect of journalism in a time of exterior threat, first the Second World War later the Cold War. This era from around 1941 to 1963 has thus been called the "lapdog journalism" phase.
After Kennedy's assassination, most journalistic circles agreed that it was immoral to cover up for officeholders' lies and those private problems that affected their ability to hold office. The media lapsed into a short time of "watchdog" journalism (about 1966 to 1974), which meant a thorougher scrutinizing of public people and a more sceptical vantage point towards their (public and private) behavior and political statements. This time is also known as the golden era of "investigative journalism" as best highlighted in Bob Woodward's and Carl Bernstein's uncovering of the Watergate Scandal. Journalism in this period contributed to the democratic checks and balances system in uncovering politically important facts, while keeping news about politicians' private lives minimal.
Yet gradually, the coverage shifted towards a more sensational tilt where those private lives gradually became an independent area of interest, not just a largely ignored by-product of the person's official role. The Rooseveltian rule was replaced and completely reverted: "Since any aspect of private life is potentially relevant to an offical's public performance, the reasoning went, everything is fair game - personal relationships, private behavior, and any matter exhibiting an official's 'character' or 'judgment'. Furthermore, literally anything that affects the political players and outcome - including unproved rumor and innuendo - can be made public in the process." (Sabato 46). Journalism had reached its "junkyard dog" stage, which continues up to today. This is the time of "anything goes", everything being fair game, and it has found its climax in the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.
However, 'anything goes' is not a proper way of dealing with the private-public problem either. While the press has mercifully abandoned its 'lapdog' attitude for a democratically legitimate and necessary 'watchdog' position, the latter has "spun out of control and has developed the nasty demeanor and side effects of the 'junkyard dog' variety." (Sabato 49).
In the following, I will explain why this is not the proper standard for any decent journalism, and then go on and explore what standards should apply instead. I thus hope to contribute to dividing the now indistinguishably blurred areas of the public and the private so far as to allow maybe not for a complete distinction, but at least clear areas of white (i.e. do's) and black (don'ts), with only small amounts of grey in between. After all, there always remains a grey area of individual journalistic discretion in so far as every case is special - what matters to me is giving the journalist a general guideline. My hope is that the standard meets an ethical mind: in the end, ethical standards depend on the humans' determination to use them to good ends.
There are several arguments against an anything-goes rule in journalism. First, it makes the unfounded assumption that a person’s character is equivalent to her or his professional aptitude. Second, it extends the inquisitive power of journalism too far into an area that is protected as personal privacy. Third, it misconceives the role of journalism in a democratic system, leading to a tilt in the relation between journalists and their readers or viewers. And last, and perhaps most importantly, this rule gives prominence to morality within an area that should be governed by law, thus endangering the secular character of the state. In a time of religious zeal and fundamentalism globe-wide, this is all but a trivial affair.
Sometimes, an argument can be made most lucent by displaying the downside of its antagonist. Therefore, I will make my case against the arguments for “anything goes” as held by some well-known journalists.
 Sabato 214.
 Sabato 25 and 29-46 in more detail on Kennedy and Johnson.
 cf. Sabato 26.
 For a good narration of the incidents leading to the transition in journalistic coverage of private matters, see Sabato 46.
 Sabato divides those three stages into the years from 1941 to 1966 (lapdog), 1966 to 1974 (watchdog: independent journalistic investigations into statements made by public officials and their private lives, as far as it mattered for their public performance), and 1974 to the present day (junkyard dog). (Sabato 25/26).
 Edward R. Murrow, Oct. 15, 1958, RTNDA Meeting, Chicago.
 The four statements of Bob Woodward, Brooks Jackson, Michael Kinsley, and George Herman are taken from Sabato 215.
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