MORAL ISSUES AND THE MEDIA

It's either a plus or a minus. But interest is growing in the bow ties and musty, baggy, eggheaded look of Paul Simon, the Illinois senator bidding for the Democratic presidential nomination.

You can almost bet that most of the news media will pay more attention to Simon's old-fashioned appearance than to his old-fashioned liberalism. And no one will object--least of all those attacking the press for the recent Gary Hart disclosures.

Is that their message in this video age of presidential politics, where image obscures all else? That it's proper to judge candidates on the way they look in public, but not the way they live in private? Give us exteriors, not interiors?

Hart was the Democratic front-runner whose candidacy was felled by reports in the Miami Herald that he had spent part of a weekend with Donna Rice while his wife was gone, followed by a Washington Post story alleging Hart's long-term romance with another woman.

The Herald insisted that its story was not about Hart's morals--if the reports of his adultery were true--but rather about his so-called judgment and character. Hart had invited the press to scrutinize him, and then went ahead and invited Rice to his town house anyway, for whatever reason. Would America want a guy in the White House with the lousy judgment to allegedly get caught with another woman?

The operative word here is caught. Doing it was one thing. John F. Kennedy did it, too, and the media shouldn't have looked the other way. But getting caught?

"What is questioned is his character," Ted Koppel noted about Hart on Monday night. "But what is not questioned is his morality. That isn't relevant?"

Of course it is. It absolutely is.

Disagreeing, though, was Kevin Sweeney, Hart's former press secretary, who participated in ABC's "Viewpoint" program Monday questioning whether the press went too far in the Hart/Rice story. He was joined on the panel by ABC's Barbara Walters, Herald political editor Tom Fiedler, Louisville Courier-Journal editor Michael Gartner and civil rights activist Julian Bond.

Sweeney contended that the press had gone too far, saying that the media should not judge the morals of candidates. True. Not judge, report.

What greater arrogance is there than a press deciding for America what the electorate shouldn't know about candidates for the White House? Editorial judgment comes with the territory. But are the media to be the nation's sole arbiters of wisdom and truth, superimposing their own values on society, hoarding inside information that they, in their genius and moral supremacy, decide that the public needn't know?

Let's see: Candidate John Doe steps out on his wife. He doesn't want the public to know. That might affect his conduct as President by making him vulnerable to external pressures. Mmmmmm. Nah, it doesn't bother me, so I won't report it. Besides, some of my best friends play around, and I don't judge them.

But they're not running for President.

Exteriors, not interiors.

You can fault the Herald's execution in the Hart story, but not its news judgment. By not pursuing the story, it would have been assigning itself the role of moral Big Brother, deciding that the public need not know of possible infidelity (although Hart denied having a sexual relationship with Rice) by a candidate. In presidential politics, the public's right to know overrides the individual's right to privacy.

If a candidate's morals were not important to Americans, then Hart would still be in the race today instead of staying in the public consciousness merely as a subject for discussions about the media.

"If you disagree with a politician's moral fiber, don't vote for that person," Sweeney added. Right again. And that's the point. The public can't disagree with something it doesn't know about.

If morality in its broadest sense were not a public issue, then 26 members of a select committee of Congress would be wasting their time looking into the ethics and possible criminal misconduct of government in the Iran- contra affair.

Remember the question of Hart's brief campaign? A lot of people--including many in the media--felt a reporter strayed far out of bounds by asking Hart straight out: "Have you ever committed adultery?" He refused to answer.

Said Walters on the "Viewpoint" program: "I don't think we're so irresponsible that we're all going to ask George Bush and Sen. (Robert) Dole if they ever committed adultery."

It would revolutionize campaign coverage. Yet why isn't it appropriate to ask a candidate that question and then hold him to the answer? No one expects sainthood from Presidents, but there is surely a significant number of Americans who would hold a President to certain standards of personal conduct. More than being merely a strong leader in the traditional sense, the President should be a leader in all phases, a role model just as Jim Bakker should have been role model for his electronic flock.

Why should the nation tolerate a pattern of lying or evasiveness, whether in televised campaign promises or 30-second TV spots or statements about moral values? If a President lies to the nation about his private life, will he also lie to the nation about other matters that could prove embarrassing to him? In the worst-case scenario, isn't that what the Iran- contra affair is all about?

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