September 8, 1998
Last week, Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN), an outspoken critic of President Clinton, admitted he had an extramarital affair and fathered a child out of wedlock. He made the announcement because a number of news organizations were reportedly ready to disclose the affair. Was the press right to pursue this story? After a background report, Terence Smith, the NewsHour's media correspondent, leads a discussion with an editor and a media critic.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
NEWSHOUR LINKS: MEDIA
September 3, 1998:
The Monica Lewinsky story follows the president to Russia.
September 1, 1998:
Financial news gains more and more coverage.
August 28, 1998:
A look at media coverage of Princess Diana, a year after her death.
NEWSHOUR LINKS: DAN BURTON
August 4, 1998:
Chairman Burton accuses Attorney General Reno of playing politics in her investigation into the president.
May 13, 1998:
Congressman Burton continues to struggle with Democrats on his committee.
May 12, 1998:
Rep. Dan Burton's committee dissolves into partisan rancor over its chairman's tactics.
May 8, 1998:
A report on Dan Burton's release of the Hubbell tapes.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of media issues and Congress.
Congressman Dan Burton's Web site
Center for Media and Public Affairs
TERENCE SMITH: In Indiana last week Republican Congressman Dan Burton confessed that he had had an extramarital affair 15 years ago in which he had fathered a child out of wedlock.
REP. DAN BURTON: This is something that happened along time ago. And my wife and my family has been aware of this for a long time. I have accepted my responsibilities a long time ago. The boy and the mother and my wife and my family and I have all reached an agreement about this a long time ago.
TERENCE SMITH: Burton's confession was prompted by the fact that the Indianapolis Star and News, a local television station, and Vanity Fair magazine were all preparing reports about his affair.
Reporting on a 15-year-old affair.
REP. DAN BURTON: The reason I chose to go ahead and come forward with this is because some members of the media – and I won't tell which ones of you – have been harassing this family and the boy.
TERENCE SMITH: The congressman, who is chairman of the House committee investigating alleged campaign finance abuses by the Clinton administration, has been one of the President's most caustic critics. He said in a statement that there had been some rough times during his 38-year marriage and that he and his wife had come close to divorce.
The Star and News first reported on its Internet Web site that Burton had the affair in the early 1980's, when he was a state senator and the woman worked for a state agency. Burton said he had told his wife of the relationship and provided financial support for the boy, who now lives with his mother in Indiana.
Is this news? Newspapers around the country thought so. The St. Petersburg Times, Florida, put the story on page 1, as did The Arizona Republic. But in West Virginia, the Charleston Gazette questioned whether Burton was fair game. Politicians' private lives, the paper concluded, should be private like other people's.
TERENCE SMITH: Now to examine the question of whether the Burton story was justified, we're joined by Robert Lichter, president of the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan research organization. He's the co-author of When Should the Watchdog Bark?, a book about public sex scandals, and Vic Caleca, the deputy managing editor of the Indianapolis Star and News, who made the decision to run the Star. Gentlemen, welcome. Robert Lichter, is this a legitimate story?
A legitimate story?
ROBERT LICHTER, Center for Media and Public Affairs: You are talking about an affair that took place 15 years ago that was handled privately by all the parties involved. It's not in the courts. It's not a matter of current behavior, the use of public funds, public office. If this is news, then God help us all, because we have lost any zone of privacy for public officials. I think that it's been a long road since Gary Hart started all this a decade ago. And I really think this one removes all the speed limits from it.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Vic Caleca, what justifies, in your view, a story about a 15-year-old affair where no complaint was lodged?
VIC CALECA, Indianapolis Star and News: Well, I think there are a couple of things to keep in mind here. First of all, from our standpoint, it's a local story. Congressman Burton is a very prominent member of the Vienna delegation. He has long stood for bedrock, conservative values. In fact, even when his current Web site talks about being – taking honesty and integrity back to Washington – and that those are things he stands for – in this case we think there was a bit of a disconnect between what he stands for and what his – which his past behavior was. I think there's a legitimate question about whether – if it was strictly a 15-year-old affair – whether there is any reason to go into that, but I think the fact that a child resulted from that affair or kicks it up a notch. Another thing that kicked it up a notch for us was the congressman himself attended a town meeting in Frankfurt, Indiana, early last week, and stood up and pretty much said – not quite a Gary Hart thing but close, where he said that, you know, I've done – did something in my past that I'm not proud of – in essence there's – you know, you may be hearing about something that I did, and I'm not going to tell you what it is, but if it comes out, then I'll address it. And to us, that – I mean, frankly, we were kind of wondering where we were going to go with this story, but once the congressman said that, that seemed a rather untenable situation. I mean, what does that say to his constituents, and what does that say to us and what do we need to tell his constituents?
TERENCE SMITH: Robert Lichter, does it justify it in any way in your view, because Congressman Burton has taken a sort of high moral ground in the past?
ROBERT LICHTER: Well, if you say that any politician who stands up for honesty and integrity is fair game for anything in his past, you're setting the bar pretty low. You're saying fine, anything is news. It's only politicians who stand for dishonesty and promiscuity that we're not going to cover, and you know –
TERENCE SMITH: Let me refine it, because I agree, not many politicians run against family values, but the issue here is whether his position on these issues and his strong criticism of President Clinton for his behavior in any way justifies it.
ROBERT LICHTER: I think one factor is if a candidate becomes – or a politician becomes extremely high profile and say you have to be a paragon of virtue and not have extramarital affairs, or that disqualifies you, then hypocrisy comes into play. But I really don't think we're talking about that. He's criticized Clinton very strongly, and, in fact, I think inappropriately in the language he used, but he was talking about campaign finance issues, this scandal. I'm also concerned by the notion that he basically brought this on himself by talking about it in a town meeting. Of course, he did this because he knew reporters were beating down not just his door but the door of this woman. That's like saying this soldier got in the line of fire, it's not our fault, of course, we were lobbing hand grenades into the trenches, and may not have had anything to do with it.
Was the White House behind the story?
TERENCE SMITH: Right. Vic Caleca, the congressman says that the White House is behind much of this and that it is in response to his criticism of the President. Let me ask you straight out, did the White House tip you to the story, did they provide any information? Did anyone from the administration or the Democratic Party lead you to this story?
VIC CALECA: No. In fact, the -- I mean, I find that notion kind of laughable at this point. I mean, we had no contact with the White House or anyone involved with the Democratic Party. In fact, we did not – well, two things – we did not – in deciding whether or not to go with the story Congressman Burton's criticism of Clinton was – I won't say we didn't consider it at all, but it was fairly down the list, although I do think it's something of splitting hairs to say that his characterization of the President's character was in reference to this area of his life – not an other area of his life – you know, therefore, you know, somehow we should only have – you should only consider Congressman Burton's statements and only if it was in reference to the President's sexual life or personal life, I mean, I think moral character is more of a whole.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Robert Lichter, when – to paraphrase your book title – when should the watchdog bite? In other words, what's the line? What is private in a politician's life and what is public? Are you saying that private is private no matter what?
ROBERT LICHTER: I think you have to have a presumption in favor of privacy unless there is a good reason to cross that line. And you have to say that there is a line. What are the reasons to cross it? One obvious reason to cross it is its relevance to current public duties and responsibilities. You know, just as patriotism is the last refuge of a scandal, I think the notion of character is the last refuge of tabloid journalism, that is, if we can't justify it for any other reason, we say it's a character issue. It's a matter of public character.
Does Rep. Burton's personal life affect his ability to do his job?
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Let's put this to Vic. How does this affect his ability to do his job?
VIC CALECA: Well, you know, I mean, does it affect his ability to conduct hearings, or to conduct, you know, to study policy questions, you know – no, I don't know, but as far as whether someone who portrays themselves as standing for honesty and integrity on the one hand and then turns around and, you know, has something like this in their past that they've – you know, that has never been discussed publicly, that his constituency is unaware of, that people voting for are unaware of is, you know, I think that's newsworthy.
TERENCE SMITH: Has your paper endorsed the congressman in the past?
VIC CALECA: You know, I would have to go back and look. We are – editorially, we are a very Republican newspaper, so I think it's probably quite likely that we have.
TERENCE SMITH: Again, to the point, the line between public and private, are we in a new era here? I mean, it certainly seems that way these days not only in this case but more broadly.
ROBERT LICHTER: It's really as if we're telling public officials – it's like entering Dante's Inferno, you abandon all hope for privacy, you enter here. Ten years ago this unquestionably would not have been news. I don't think the Indianapolis paper would disagree with this. The problem is when you don't have clear lines and don't require clear justifications to cross that line, then you practice lowest common denominator journalism. You're continuously lowering the bar, and you end up with no threshold at all.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay, Vic, finally, in just a few seconds that we have left, what's been the reaction from your readers and others in your city?
VIC CALECA: Well, I think, as you would expect, it's been fairly split. I mean, there – although I checked on our letters to the editor before I came over, and they were running about two to one, I guess, against Congressman Burton's position, and I think it was evenly split on whether or not we should have done the story, but I think in this case we set the bar appropriately high, and I don't think that fathering a child out of wedlock is an inconsequential act.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Well, we'll have to leave it there. Thank you both. I appreciate it very much.
VIC CALECA: Thank you.