How Far Should Journalists Go When Probing The Private Lives Of Political Candidates?

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Former U.S. Senator Gary Hart waves his arms to quiet applause from supporters, during a press conference announcing his withdrawal from the Democratic presidential race in 1987. (Jack Smith/AP)
Former U.S. Senator Gary Hart waves his arms to quiet applause from supporters, during a press conference announcing his withdrawal from the Democratic presidential race in 1987. (Jack Smith/AP)

As Massachusetts voters prepare to elect a new governor, one of the perennial questions in a political race involves how far the press should probe a candidate's private life. Matt Bai, a reporter for The New York Times, wrote about this recently in a piece he called, "Original Sin."

It tells the the sensational story of Gary Hart's presidential bid in 1987 — and how it came crashing down amid revelations of an extramarital affair.

As Bai writes, this was "an unprecedented collision of media, politics and sex." Before that moment, Bai makes the point that journalists pretty much stayed out of politicians' private lives.

Presidents from Roosevelt to Kennedy to Johnson got a free pass, despite evidence of marital infidelity. But beginning with the Gary Hart scandal, private mores and sexual behavior became part of the regular political conversation — from Bill Clinton to Jesse Jackson to General David Petraeus.

Matt Bai suggests this shift has damaged political journalism and our political culture. Is he right?

Tom Fiedler played a central role in the Gary Hart story. Now, Fiedler is the dean of Boston University's College of Communication. But back in 1987, he was a political reporter for the Miami Herald who published an explosive investigative story that ended Gary Hart's quest for the presidency.

The story transfixed the nation, not only because of the lurid details of a journalistic sting, sex and denials. But also, as Tom Fiedler reminds us, because of who Gary Hart was — and how close the handsome senator from Colorado came to being president.

"He had double-digit leads over any of the other opponents out there," said Fiedler. "And, he had double-digit leads over the likely Republican nominee, George H.W. Bush."


Tom Fiedler, dean of Boston University's College of Communication and professor of the practice in BU's journalism department. He tweets @BUCOMDEAN.


On the way the political mission of the press changed in the second half of the 20th century:
Tom Fiedler:
"I think the clear point of demarcation was...what were considered the reforms in the way that the presidential process would carry out — how somebody would actually win the nomination. Prior to — and up to — 1968, the nominees for the parties were basically chosen by the 'boys in the...smoke-filled back rooms.' So, basically, you'd go to the convention and the candidate would kind of pop out and the party would rally around him — always a him — and that would be it. And the press would go along and focus primarily on the candidate's statements, cover the campaign itself, almost as a scribe. After 1968, they came up with the idea that the primary process as we know it would go on, so a candidate would run that marathon...It pushed the party leadership, really, out of the process. And so, the press began to move in to fill what was a vacuum. Someone had to vet who these candidates are. What is this person's real record and what is that person's character? And that began to take hold as part of the press' mission, but suddenly you had the leading presidential candidate caught in a relationship with a woman who was a very attractive model at a resort in Miami, the Turnberry Isle Resort, that, if there was a reality TV show for Miami Vice it would've been Turnberry Isle. This was a place where you had beautiful women, rich, powerful men, many of them involved in the drug business, and for Gary Hart to turn up with a woman in that setting was absolutely shocking, and I think that's why that story just took off."

On how he was tipped off to the Donna Rice story:
"I was watching these press conferences where [Hart] had to keep pushing back on the...womanizing allegation that Newsweek had brought up and I thought, from a journalistic standpoint, this was an important issue. And I wrote a front page story, as it turned out, about, where is the line between a candidate's public life and private life? How far is the press entitled to go? Especially when you're dealing with an allegation that has not been proved. And in my story I said, at this point, this is a rumor and the media could well be accused of rumor-mongering — I think I used that word. So, that story ran on page one of the Herald...And it wasn't journalistically sound, is what I was saying. I think journalists are off-base here because they've got no proof, they're just pushing a rumor. And that night, the night the story ran, I got a call from a woman who was part of this group of young women who hung around in Turnberry Isle. And she told me the story of Gary Hart being there, of Gary Hart having this relationship with the woman we came to know as Donna Rice, going off on the boat trip to Bimini and all of those things...I didn't believe her at first, I told her I needed proof, and the next day she called me back and she gave me further details that, that following weekend, this woman, Donna Rice, would go to Washington, spend the weekend with Sen. Hart...We basically followed that tip and countered it."

On going to Washington for the "stakeout":
"It was a stakeout, although I'd be embarrassed to use that term because we were hardly professional at that. The first reporter who went up, this was Jim McGee, who was really one of the top investigative reporters at the Miami Herald. When he got to Washington...and then went to the townhouse where Sen. Hart was...he then saw Sen. Hart with this woman, this beautiful woman, coming out of the townhouse. But Jim didn't cover politics and he didn't really know Gary Hart other than as a picture in the newspapers. So, he called me, he said, 'You've got to be here to see what I'm seeing because, you know, this could well be the essence of this tip'...So, I flew up with the investigations editor, Jim Savage, brought someone over from our Washington bureau and a photographer came and our whole point in being there was really just to verify what Jim McGee had seen the night before and, you know, confront Sen. Hart. We ended up being there all day, well into the night, and then Sen. Hart did emerge with Donna Rice on his arm and that led to a rather dramatic confrontation interview where...I wouldn't say he confirmed everything we had, but he wasn't able to refute or rebut so we decided that what we had gone to verify in fact had been verified and we wrote the story."

On confronting Gary Hart:
"I have to say that I felt terribly awkward. I said, 'This is not what I became a journalist to do.' And I considered myself to be...a serious political writer. And I believe in that process and I enjoyed it very much and then suddenly here I am, the personal confrontation...And clearly Sen. Hart recognized that this was possibly a campaign-ending kind of a thing. But he also was prepared to fight. And the 24 to 48 hours after we ran the story were maybe the hardest time in my life, because he was denying it, his campaign was pulling out every stop to attack us. [They] claimed that we got it wrong and I kept thinking, what could we have missed? Is there something we just didn't see or didn't get? That was 48 hours of sleeplessness, that was hard."

On whether the Gary Hart scandal hurt American political reporting as a whole:
"Even if it did hurt us, I think the question would be, what is the role of the journalist? And, you know, our role isn't necessarily to be popular, to be liked. I think what our role is, is to deliver information as honestly and as ethically as we possibly can, even when that information is uncomfortable and awkward...In the weeks after our story came out, [in] the Gallup polls, two to one said...the Miami Herald went too far. You know, this was just information that we didn't really need to have or know. And yet, by two to one, people in the same poll said, yes, this information was important in making up their mind as to how to vote. So, it does say something about who these people are, and I think the press needs to go there. Not with happiness, not with joy...You never saw high-fives in the Miami Herald newsroom about this story."


The New York Times Magazine: How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics

  • "As anyone alive during the 1980s knows, Hart, the first serious presidential contender of the 1960s generation, was taken down and eternally humiliated by a scandal, a suspected affair with a beautiful blonde whose name, Donna Rice, had entered the cultural lexicon, along with the yacht — Monkey Business — near which she had been photographed on his lap."

This article was originally published on September 29, 2014.

This segment aired on September 29, 2014.


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