For years, personal indiscretions by elected officials have been viewed as fair game by the press. The political impact of the ensuing stories is left to the public, which must determine whether a particular aspect of an individual's private life is relevant to their public one.
When reporting on personal issues, the press owes the people a full and accurate accounting, especially when suggesting reasons why a certain action might be relevant to voters. But today's print coverage of Senator John Ensign's affair demonstrates how often stories concerning personal problems miss a central part of the tale.
If Mr. Ensign's actions are indeed newsworthy (an idea some would dispute), it is because they represent hypocrisy on behalf of a lawmaker with future political ambitions. To that end, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times noted in their articles that Sen. Ensign had been highly critical of former Idaho Senator Larry Craig for his alleged actions in a Minneapolis bathroom, adding that Ensign had also called on Bill Clinton to resign during the Monica Lewinsky affair. Reuters and the Associated Press included the Craig connection, but failed to mention the statements regarding Clinton. The New York Times, to its discredit, chose not to mention Ensign's reaction to either event.
But more importantly, not one of these news organizations felt compelled to note that Senator Ensign has been a vocal opponent of gay marriage, as well as being a public and proud supporter of the Defense of Marriage Amendment (DOMA). As a readily available press release on Mr. Ensign's website makes clear, for him, "Marriage is an extremely important institution in this country and protecting it is, in my mind, worth the extraordinary step of amending our constitution."
This obvious and highly consequential hypocrisy was immediately picked up on by several progressive blogs, such as DailyKos and Think Progress.
An editorial in today's Las Vegas Review-Journal shows why this major omission on behalf of print journalism's standard bearers is so galling. Not content merely to ignore all of Senator Ensign's past statements on the behavior (and marriage rights) of others, it defended him by illogically shifting the focus onto the "leftists" who couldn't recognize that this was a "personal matter":
[D]espite the predictable cries of "hypocrisy" from leftists who are only spared the label because so little is expected of them, it's worth pointing out that this is a personal matter -- not the kind of betrayal of official trust Democrats demonstrate every time they sacrifice the public welfare to satiate their paymasters, the trial lawyers or the public employee unions.
For the Review-Journal, it is worth noting, Bill Clinton's personal behavior was anything but personal.
The piece follows this purely partisan attack by noting that "Sen. Ensign remains one of the more principled spokesmen now on the Washington stage for a government limited in size and intrusiveness into our lives." Apparently, federally mandating which consenting adults can and cannot marry one another fits the "limited intrusiveness" guidelines.
Nevada readers are regrettably exposed to such poorly reasoned conservative dogma every day, much to their detriment. As such, more responsible news organizations with a national reach have a responsibility to pick up the pieces and provide them with the full story.
The omission of Sen. Ensign's support of DOMA from coverage both at the national and state level therefore represents the kind of failure that does a disservice to readers and voters, and must not be repeated.