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.
In an article about President-elect Barack Obama's emphasis on alternative energy production in his economic stimulus speech, Reuters quoted criticism of Obama's plan by Thomas Pyle of the Institute for Energy Research. However, the article did not mention the Institute for Energy Research's ties to the oil industry or that Exxon Mobil Corp. has funded the organization.
Reporting on the appointment of Rep. Rahm Emanuel as President-elect Barack Obama's White House chief of staff, Reuters quoted RNC spokesman Alex Conant's assertion that Obama's choice of Emanuel "undermines his promise to 'heal the divides.' " But Reuters did not note that Republicans have reportedly praised Emanuel, including Sen. Lindsey Graham who said that he is "a wise choice" and that he "understands the need to work together."
Reuters and MSNBC.com's First Read reported Gov. Sarah Palin's assertion that Sen. Barack Obama "supported cutting off funding for our troops in the war" without noting that Sen. John McCain himself voted against legislation to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
An NPR news brief and a Reuters article noted Gov. Sarah Palin's recent comment that Sen. Barack Obama has been "palling around with terrorists," a reference to his acquaintance with Bill Ayers. But neither noted that The New York Times, in the article Palin cited for her claim, reported that "the two men do not appear to have been close."
In articles reporting that a McCain campaign ad criticizes Sen. Barack Obama for voting against legislation to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Reuters, the Associated Press, and the Los Angeles Times did not mention, as Obama pointed out during the first presidential debate, that Sen. John McCain has also voted against troop funding legislation.
Blog posts by The New York Times and Reuters quoted Sen. John McCain criticizing Sen. Barack Obama for attending a Hollywood fundraiser without noting reports that McCain himself has recently held lucrative fundraisers in Beverly Hills and Miami.
In reports on Sen. John McCain's acceptance speech at the RNC, several media outlets uncritically reported McCain's claim that Sen. Barack Obama "will raise" taxes, without pointing out that McCain's own chief economic adviser has reportedly said the accusation is inaccurate or that Obama has in fact proposed cutting taxes for low- and middle-income families and raising them only on households earning more than $250,000 per year.
Numerous print media outlets uncritically reported Gov. Sarah Palin's claim that Sen. Barack Obama "is a man who has authored two memoirs but not a single major law or reform -- not even in the state senate," without noting that Obama has played key roles in the passage of reform legislation at both the federal and state levels, including a bill that McCain co-sponsored and thanked Obama for his work on.
Articles in several print media outlets reported on an ad by Sen. John McCain congratulating Sen. Barack Obama on accepting the Democratic presidential nomination. But none of these articles pointed out that, notwithstanding the ad's suggestion that McCain was taking the day off from attacking Obama, the McCain campaign ran attack ads the night of Obama's speech and issued a web video and accompanying press release criticizing Obama earlier in the day.
A Reuters article included Sen. John McCain's charge that Sen. Barack Obama "tried to prevent funding for troops that carried out the surge." In fact, Obama, who has repeatedly voted for bills that include funds for the Iraq war, voted against a troop funding bill in May 2007, he said, because it did not include a timeline for withdrawal. Reuters reporter Alister Bull did not correct the falsehood, nor did he note that McCain himself has voted against war funding legislation.
Reuters reported on July 27 that Sen. John McCain's campaign aired an advertisement attacking Sen. Barack Obama "in which the announcer says: 'And now, he made time to go to the gym, but canceled a visit with wounded troops. Seems the Pentagon wouldn't allow him to bring cameras.' " The article did not note, however, that Obama reportedly visited wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center without the media, and although he did not visit Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, he reportedly made phone calls to wounded soldiers there. Moreover, NBC's Andrea Mitchell reported that Obama "visited a casualty unit in the Green Zone" in Iraq "without photographers" several days before arriving in Germany.
Numerous media outlets quoted or aired all or part of a statement Sen. John McCain made criticizing Sen. Barack Obama for giving a "political speech" in Berlin while "a candidate for the office of the presidency," but none noted that McCain himself gave a "political speech" in a foreign country last month, speaking to the Economic Club of Toronto in Ottawa, Canada, on a trip paid for by his presidential campaign.
July 1 reports by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and Reuters noting that John McCain's campaign organized a "conference call" of supporters to respond to Gen. Wesley Clark's recent comments about McCain did not mention that among those supporters was Bud Day, a member of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, whose smears against Sen. John Kerry were criticized by McCain himself.
Reuters falsely suggested that Sen. John McCain most recently called for Russia to be excluded from the Group of Eight major industrialized nations (G-8) in October 2007, and uncritically quoted an anonymous McCain adviser's assertion that McCain no longer holds that position. In fact, McCain again called for Russia to be excluded from the G-8 in a March 2008 speech.