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Coverage of Vitter Sex Scandal Raises Questions About Privacy

July 18, 2007 at 6:45 PM EDT

SEN. DAVID VITTER (R), Louisiana: I want to again offer my deep, sincere apologies to all those I have let down and disappointed with these actions from my past. I am completely responsible, and I am so very, very sorry.

JEFFREY BROWN: With those words, Senator David Vitter, Republican of Louisiana, sought to blunt political damage and media attention from a sex scandal. Long an outspoken voice on conservative social issues, the 46-year-old Vitter had acknowledged a “serious sin” after his Washington telephone number was found among those called several years ago by an escort service run by Deborah Jeane Palfrey, known as the D.C. Madam. Prosecutors say it was a prostitution ring.

Vitter and his family went into seclusion for a week, trying to avoid reporters. The story has had big play on talk radio and cable news in particular.

TALK RADIO CALLER: If he can’t be loyal to his wife, he’s not going to be loyal to us, the people.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN Anchor: And in a strange twist, Hustler magazine is said to be involved.

JEFFREY BROWN: At a news conference Monday night, the senator’s wife, Wendy, asked reporters to leave the family alone.

WENDY VITTER, Wife of Sen. David Vitter: It’s been terribly hard to have the media parked on our front lawn and following us every day. And yesterday, the media was camped at our church, at our home, and our church every day.

"Private versus public lives"

JEFFREY BROWN: Senator Vitter returned to Washington yesterday for a subcommittee hearing and found reporters waiting.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, has been monitoring the coverage of this and other cases that raise the question of private versus public lives. He joins us now.

So, Tom, a story like this breaks. Who runs with it, and who avoids it?

TOM ROSENSTIEL, The Project for Excellence in Journalism: Well, there are big differences. This is a big story in cable. In the roughly eight days that it's been a story, it's the number-four story on cable news. It's not even a story in newspapers. And online, you know, pretty minor. It's really a story in the sort of immediate niche media of talk radio and cable.

JEFFREY BROWN: How much of a debate do you see going on in the media? Because there's a lot of history here, of course. When something like this happens, how does the debate play out over whether to cover it?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Well, there are two reasons that the press covers these stories. One is simply the tabloid sensationalism. There's a buzz factor to it.

But there's another longer-term reason: The press has inched toward covering the private lives of public officials gradually over the last 30 years as we've closed out the smoke-filled room out of politics. And things that were once vetted in the smoke-filled room, the drinking and the private behavior of public figures, now has to be vetted somehow in public.

And the press has come to this, reluctantly, hesitantly, haltingly, and they're still not comfortable about how to do it. And they're not comfortable in this case because he's not a national figure. He's not a presidential figure. This is a kind of crime that some people think is a private crime, as a victimless crime. All of those debates about prostitution and about the private lives of public figures are at play in newsroom arguments over this.

Dissecting the hypocrisy factor

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things talked about by those who did run with it was the so-called hypocrisy factor, a guy who's well-known for his conservative social views. So that's a factor that plays into the debate?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Yes. And when journalists are trying to figure out should they cover this, one of the things that they talk about is, is there some impact on his public life? The old standard of journalism was, you know, when pros vetted these things in private, "We're not going to cover someone's drinking or other behavior unless it obviously impacts his public conduct." You have to drive into the reflecting pool or the tidal basin with a stripper before we'll write about Wilbur Mills' drinking.

Now what impacts your public life could be something that the press decides is simply a matter of hypocrisy, and so that's one of the issues here. Would this be written about if he were not a conservative politician who preaches family values? That would seem to be a double standard, if you were only going to do this for people who preach those kinds of political sentiments.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, here you also have this list, and you have lots of other people's numbers on the list. And in some cases, there was an early decision by ABC News not to go with the story. That was before a senator's name was there.

TOM ROSENSTIEL: Right. A public -- I mean, an elected official is different than a government official. And the reason is, going back to this notion that voters have to make a decision about whether to trust this person. And so voters need to have this information.

The notion that the press should not touch these things under really any circumstance, I think very few journalists would hold to that standard today, that old standard that it would have to obviously affect his -- that if you have a mistress, it's not our business unless she's on the public payroll. That standard has shifted and shifted permanently.

"A backlash against the media"

JEFFREY BROWN: And in this inching, gradual change that you've talked about over many years to what we now know is a celebrity-soaked culture -- you know, Paris Hilton, need I say more -- do you see the public driving this push into politics, or is it the media still trying to find its way?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: I really think it's probably fair to say that it's the media. Look at the arc that we went through from Gary Hart in 1987, where the press very delicately said, "This isn't about adultery; it's about character," to '92 -- and that destroyed Gary Hart's candidacy -- to '92, where it was about adultery in Bill Clinton, and he was elected anyway, to 1998, where he admitted -- where he lied under oath about adultery, and the public supported him anyway, and was angry at the press and Republicans for trying to challenge him.

The headline here is that the public has become much more tolerant and able to absorb this information. And there was, frankly, a backlash against the media pushing into the private lives of public figures after '98. And in the 2000 elections, I think you saw very little of this sort of scrubbing of the private lives of Bush and Gore.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just real briefly, only a few seconds here, but you've raised a bunch of candidates, and here we are in another presidential campaign. Can you tell yet whether their lives are open at this point?

TOM ROSENSTIEL: One thing you can say for sure is that no one will be scrubbed unless they are so close to the nomination that the press thinks, "This person could actually be president, so this is mucky, but we're going to have to do it."

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Tom Rosenstiel, thanks a lot.