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Woodruff: Private Lives, Public Officials and Media Maelstroms

Every day we in the news media have to make judgment calls.

They come in all shapes and sizes, some obviously more difficult than others. One of the most sensitive is how to handle the private lives of public figures, a question that arises more often than one might expect. Twice in the just the past five days it’s arisen with revelations about Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the powerful Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund and a potential candidate for president of France, and then Arnold Schwarzenegger, the movie actor and former Governor of California.

Strauss-Kahn is being held in a New York City jail, on charges including attempted rape and sexual assault at a luxury hotel. Schwarzenegger has publicly acknowledged that more than a decade ago, he fathered a child out of wedlock, with a woman who worked at his family’s home in Los Angeles.

We at the NewsHour exist within a media maelstrom, much of which thrives on these type stories. Even with the digital revolution and the rise of the Internet, there are multiple newspapers, magazines, tabloids and books that feed on this sort of material. People are naturally curious when the famous and powerful go astray, cheat on a spouse, and, of course, when they’re accused of a crime.

For us, the decision about what to cover is easier than it is for many others. The NewsHour has never been the place to turn for gossip and scandal. To the contrary, one of Jim Lehrer’s long-time guidelines is: “Assume personal lives are a private matter, until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.” We have a set of questions we ask about every story, formally or informally: How important is it for the American people to know about this? Does it affect their well-being, their role as citizens, their daily lives? Does it involve a public official? If so, is he or she accused of something that intersects with the public’s business? Or is it something that is entirely in the private realm?

I wasn’t at work on Monday of this week, so didn’t participate in the editorial staff’s discussion that morning about how to handle the Strauss-Kahn story, but it was a natural, given the official role he has and his widespread influence, to cover it. That night, my colleague Gwen Ifill reported on the incident and interviewed a former IMF official and an international affairs specialist who is a native of France, to explain the impact on the IMF and to get the perspective of his countrymen and women.

Wednesday morning, the staff agreed, as Jim put it, that given the fact that someone of Strauss-Kahn’s position is accused of a felony, and that there are potential international policy repercussions, it was again a natural to cover it. Wednesday night, Gwen reported an update on the story, with new legal developments, international moves to remove Strauss-Kahn from his job and find a replacement and a comparison of reactions in the United States and France.

The Schwarzenegger story, however, is not “a natural.” It broke Tuesday morning in the Los Angeles Times, and on Tuesday’s NewsHour, my colleague Hari Sreenivasan included it as an item in our news summary. Our thinking was that given Schwarzenegger’s former official role, and the nature of his disclosure, it warranted a mention, but no more. Hari’s 20-second report was accompanied by photographs of Schwarzenegger and his estranged wife, Maria Shriver.

Then, all day long on Wednesday, on the news wires, the Internet and cable television, there were continual updates on the story, at one point with the Associated Press reporting that it was “making strenuous efforts to independently confirm the identity of the housekeeper” who worked for the Schwarzenegger family. A name has already been reported by other news organizations, including the New York Times. Camera crews have descended on a neighborhood in southern California.

This raises the question for some of what purpose it serves the American news audience to dig deeper, and provide more details about the story. Schwarzenegger no longer holds public office, so there is no public policy implication — unlike the Strauss-Kahn incident. There are plenty of questions that beg answers, including how Schwarzenegger kept his behavior a secret when he ran for governor of California in 2003. That year, he was accused by several other women of sexual harassment, but he dismissed the allegations and was defended by his wife. What benefit is served by filling up air time, print and Internet space to re-hash what is known, and press for answers? The NewsHour, with an approximate “news hole” of 55 minutes a night, won’t go there — which news organizations should?

We were restrained in reporting on former Sen. John Edwards’ fathering a child out of wedlock, once he acknowledged it in 2009. But of course the NewsHour reported in 1998 on accusations against President Bill Clinton about his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, and more recently, about former House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s acknowledged extramarital affair with a Congressional staffer, during the time he served in Congress. In Gingrich’s case, his candidacy for president propels him back into the public arena. Both these latter incidents intersected with the public roles of the men involved.

Not so with former Gov. Schwarzenegger. There is a difference in that he’s out of public office and as far as we know, not seeking to return. For us, every incident, every public official’s or public figure’s set of circumstances has to be examined for news value on its own merits, keeping the Lehrer guideline in mind. Our obligation at the PBS NewsHour, as it is for every story, is to stop, think carefully, to understand how precious those 55 minutes are, and to consider our role in informing viewers about what’s going on in the nation and in the world. It’s as simple as that.

If you have thoughts on this and want to share them, I’d be interested.

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