COLUMN ONE : Stumbling Over Sex in the Press : Fluctuating between skittishness and sensationalism, editors and reporters keep fumbling--whether the subject is AIDS, rape or the behavior of politicians.


Why is it that when newspapers are confronted with a story that has anything to do with sex, they often screw it up?

Why do stories with little in common other than some element of sex almost invariably lead to more stumbles and fumbles (and morning-after second-guessing and mea culpas ) than you’d find in the back seat of a car after a high school prom?

Why are some issues involving sex--rape, incest, homosexuality, contraception--”way under-reported,” in the words of Geneva Overholser, editor of the Des Moines Register, while other issues involving sex--the sexual behavior of public officials, for example, or the arrest of Pee-wee Herman on charges of indecent exposure--are sometimes greatly overreported?



Why did the New York Times four months ago publish information so stigmatizing to a Palm Beach woman allegedly raped by William Kennedy Smith that more than 300 Times staffers attended a protest meeting, and critics inside and outside the paper accused the Times of making it appear that the woman deserved to be raped?

Why did it take four years and more than 6,000 deaths before most of the American press gave AIDS the aggressive, enlightened coverage it had long warranted? And why did most of the American press long use such dangerously misleading euphemisms as “intimate contact” and “an exchange of bodily fluids” rather than the precise descriptive terms that would have warned readers what kind of behavior to avoid and calmed readers alarmed by widely circulated scare stories?

Why did the press corps become so consumed with the question of Gary Hart’s alleged promiscuity--and, subsequently, the sex lives of more public officials than you could shake a room key at--that all other issues often seemed to fade into the campaign woodwork?

Why did the Los Angeles Times--and most of the rest of the media--early on abandon thecherished journalistic precepts of fairness and skepticism, often plunging into hysteria and sensationalism, repeating--virtually unchallenged, without any independent reporting--even the most outlandish charges made in the McMartin Pre-School molestation case?


Recent interviews with more than 75 journalists, political scientists and social historians have yielded almost as many theories as there are cases to theorize about.

Not everyone agrees, of course, that the press does a uniquely abysmal job in writing about sexually related issues--or, as Joseph Lelyveld, managing editor of the New York Times, puts it:

“We screw up a lot, but I’m not sure we screw up any more on sex than we do on other subjects.”

The press does blunder often on sex, though--fluctuating wildly between “skittishness on the one hand and oversensationalism on the other,” in the words of Ellen Hume, executive director of the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

The press may be simply reflecting the ambivalence of society at large where sex is concerned.

“When 99.9% of the people in the United States sit down to talk about sex, they get all screwed up,” says Bill Kovach, curator of the Neiman fellowships at Harvard University and formerly an editor at the New York Times and Atlanta Constitution.

“We can talk about death, murder, war, cancer and suicide,” Kovach says, “but we have more trouble . . . in this society talking about sex in an open, casual and honest way that befits the naturalness of the subject.

“We certainly are constipated as journalists when it comes to dealing with sex . . . especially as editors,” Kovach says.

Editors make the final decisions about what does (and what doesn’t) get published and, like most people, they often make mistakes when dealing with material that makes them uncomfortable.

“We anticipate problems from those of our readers who are uncomfortable with candor, and in trying to head off those problems, we tend to upset those people on our staffs and among our readers who demand candor,” says Allan M. Siegal, an assistant managing editor at the New York Times.

The result?

“We gyrate,” Siegal says.

Thus, the New York Times, which received tremendous criticism for identifying by name the alleged victim in the Palm Beach rape case, defended that decision, then--in subsequent stories--omitted her name.

In contrast, the Washington Post, as Larry Sabato writes in his newly published book, “Feeding Frenzy,” at first “wisely ignored” Washington Times stories, in the summer of 1989, alleging a massive homosexual “call boy” scandal involving “key officials” of the Reagan and Bush administrations. But Post editors soon “gave in to their baser instincts and devoted considerable resources to the sleazy enterprise,” Sabato writes, even though it turned out that the “key officials” were two “very minor presidential appointees mentioned in the first Times article.”

Leonard Downie, managing editor of the Post, says the “call boy” charges became “a big story in Washington,” and people began asking “if we were covering things up.”

Downie says the Post then investigated, found out there wasn’t really much to the story and wound up publishing “only enough to explain the story.”

That coverage featured one story spread across the top half of the front page of the paper’s widely read Style section, continuing to one full, ad-free page inside the section.

But what newspapers don’t publish on matters sexual often invites as much criticism as what they do publish.

“A lot of journalists who are absolutists on the 1st Amendment are absolutists except for sexual matters,” says Everett Dennis, executive director of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University.

“They think it’s OK to print dangerous ideas, but where sex is concerned, the curtain comes down,” Dennis says.

One reason for this, says Shelby Coffey, editor of the Los Angeles Times, is that there is “a very strong emotional force field attached to the subject” of sex. People feel very strongly--and very differently--about sex, and editors often find it easier, and safer, to print nothing or to use euphemisms than to try to fashion a story that will satisfy everyone and offend no one.

Editors also worry about “contaminating children,” in Dennis’ phrase.

Although Dennis points out that “such contamination has never been documented,” editors know that if they publish certain kinds of sex stories or allow certain sexually oriented language to be used, they will receive angry calls and letters from readers saying, “I have children who see this newspaper. I don’t want this filth in my house,” says Mary Hadar, assistant managing editor of the Washington Post.

Television has even more problems than newspapers when stories with sexual implications arise, in part because television is so accessible to young children. In addition, television reporters speak directly to their viewers, without the distancing effect of the printed page, and that makes them both more cautious and--often--more uncomfortable.

“Can you remember the first time you saw Tom Brokaw (the NBC anchor) talking about tampons?” asks syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman. “He looked like a little kid going to the drugstore to ask for Kotex for his sister.”

Newspaper reporters and editors might look equally uncomfortable if their readers could actually see them crafting and discussing their stories on tampons, condoms, AIDS and infidelity.

This discomfiture and ambivalence among journalists--and in U.S. society as a whole--derive in large measure from the attitudes of the Puritans who founded this country and the Victorians who strongly influenced its mores almost a century later. That influence continues today, as Russell Baker wrote this summer in a New York Times column titled “Ted Afoul of Puritans.”

Baker complained that many critics of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s private life seemed motivated by a “terrible do-good impulse that has transformed half the population into a self-righteous, hectoring police force determined to make life miserable for all who resist conforming to the code of what’s good for you.”

Many Americans have genuine, deeply rooted religious beliefs, based in the Judeo-Christian tradition and its scriptural strictures against adultery, fornication and various forms of lewd behavior, and this clearly influences how they feel about many sexual issues. Perhaps it’s no wonder that the United States is more prudish than most countries in Western Europe and elsewhere.

Although author Nardi Reeder Campion wrote in the New York Times recently, “In 50 years, we have gone from a sex-oppressed to a sex-obsessed society,” the United States has probably always been a “sex-obsessed society.”

Our Puritan/Victorian heritage notwithstanding, this obsession has enabled the press in the United States to be, at various times, “much bawdier . . . much less priggish than it is now,” in the words of R. W. Apple, national political correspondent for the New York Times.

It was, after all, in 1896, not 1991, that two prominent legal scholars--Louis Brandeis, later a Supreme Court justice, and Samuel Warren--wrote that to “satisfy a prurient taste the details of sexual relations are spread . . . in the columns of the daily papers.”

Even earlier, in 1835, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote:

“The characteristics of the American journalist consist in an open and coarse appeal to the passions of his readers; he abandons principles to assail the characters of individuals, to track them into private life and disclose all their weaknesses and vices.”

Mitchell Stephens, in his book “A History of News,” says the first newspaper printed in the United States, in 1690, “discussed a report that the king of France ‘used to lie with’ his ‘Son’s Wife’ ”; newspapers of the 1830s contained similar material, often not so delicately phrased.

Newspapers in the mid-1870s were filled with lustily detailed accounts of various sex scandals of the day. The New York Sun branded Grover Cleveland, the President-to-be, “a coarse debauchee who might bring his harlots to Washington . . . a man leprous with immorality.” The San Francisco Chronicle accused a controversial minister, the Rev. Isaac Kalloch, of “debauching virgins in his study,” as his father before him had done, writes Milton Rugoff, in his book “America’s Gilded Age.”

Rugoff says many newspapers in the late 19th Century “paraded intimate details of private life with as much zest as any paper of our day; they seized even more hungrily on sexual scandals.”

At the turn of the century, newspapers “gloried in prurience,” despite a “pretended sexual morality (that) was strict,” says Ray Ginger in “Age of Excess.”

One explanation for the earlier sexual excesses in the American press is that much of the press just wasn’t very professional--or responsible. Moreover, until relatively recently, many newspapers in the United States were little more than “attack dogs” for their political patrons, in the words of Shelby Coffey, The Times’ editor. As such, they cared more about embarrassing their political opponents than about either good taste, Puritan traditions or journalistic principles.

In 1886, for example, The Times prominently displayed a story about one of its political opponents and three male companions allegedly cavorting with “four common prostitutes . . . (in a scene of) almost sickening bestiality.”

“The four drunken male brutes and three of the four drunken female brutes were sprawled, almost nude, all in the most atrocious attitudes, about the front room,” the story said. “The man who now asks your suffrage as secretary of state, almost stark nude, was endeavoring to arouse the waiter to go and get a photographer for obscene purpose.”

In recent years, as politically motivated newspaper editors and publishers have increasingly given way to responsible, professional journalists (and corporate ownership), problems of a different order have arisen over stories involving sex.

Editors began to ask if it was fair to discuss the private behavior of public officials unless that behavior affected their public performance. Editors also worried that such stories might offend readers of a “family newspaper.”

In addition, editors have had to worry about the competition and--in a world of media conglomerates and public stockholders--about the financial bottom line. It’s fine to be responsible and high-minded, but what if that costs your newspaper both prestige and readers when editors at rival papers are not so high-minded?

Sometimes, a story initially rejected as inappropriate is published not only because of competitive pressures but because the controversy over it becomes news in itself. That’s what happened recently with controversies over “outing”--exposing the homosexuality of various public officials, including one at the Pentagon, against their will. As the latter controversy grew, many editors decided they had to report it, but most decided not to identify the official involved.

Similarly, most of the press long kept rumors of Gary Hart’s alleged philandering out of print, but when Hart, the front-runner for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, “spends the night in a townhouse with a woman not his wife, you print it because it’s news,” Coffey says. The press then got caught up in a feeding frenzy over Hart’s sex life, though, with reporters racing each other to see who could find the next smoking bed.

Reporters who weren’t peeping through keyholes themselves were busy criticizing each other:

* After the Miami Herald’s initial stakeout of Hart’s townhouse, A. M. Rosenthal of the New York Times said the Herald had “acted poorly . . . shoved the story in hastily and sloppily between editions.”

* After a political reporter for the Washington Post asked Hart, in a news conference, if he’d ever committed adultery, William Safire, another New York Times columnist, said Hart should have answered, “Go to hell”; the media have no right to “expect an answer to such personal questions,” Safire said.

* After the Washington Post told Hart it had evidence that he had engaged in another long-term, extramarital affair, he withdrew from the presidential race, prompting Hendrik Hertzberg to write in the New Republic that the Post had “essentially blackmailed (Hart) out of the race.”

Editors try to justify their coverage of the Hart story and similar stories on the ground of reader interest. But polls taken during the Hart/Donna Rice controversy showed that almost 70% of the public thought the press had gone too far in its coverage of the controversy.

The media have “gone overboard on the sex business,” says William Woestendiek, director of the school of journalism at USC and former executive editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

“They’ve just lost their sense of values, their judgment. . . . They’re falling victim to the National Enquirer syndrome. . . . They feel . . . that people are more interested in what’s going on behind a politician’s bedroom doors when actually they should be more concerned about what’s going on in . . . congressional halls.”

The journalistic contretemps about the sex lives of political candidates here baffles journalists--and readers--in Western Europe, Asia and many other areas of the world.

Katha Pollitt, who wrote a story for the Nation magazine last spring on media coverage of the Palm Beach rape case, says Europeans “just don’t get excited if a politician has a mistress. People don’t care. They assume politicians have mistresses.”

Western European journalists agree.

“There’s a different approach to sexuality in France; we don’t set as many rules . . . or have a set of sexual censors or (a) consensus as you have here on what should be good behavior,” says Michel Faure, who spent six years working in the United States in the 1980s before returning to Paris for the newspaper L’Express.

Ugo Stille, editor-in-chief of the Corriere della Sera in Milan, says various European politicians are known to have mistresses or to be gay, but “most people here don’t think it makes any difference and no one would write about it.”

Historically, Asians have also tended to ignore the sexual peccadilloes of their politicians, in part because women have traditionally been relegated to a lower position in the social order.

Although Bangkok newspapers have recently given Page 1 coverage to a sex scandal involving Sunthorn Kongsompong, the 60-year-old general behind the coup in Thailand six months ago, the scandal didn’t arise because Gen. Sunthorn has a mistress, only because both his mistress and his wife have been quarreling publicly over the right to use his name.

Having a mistress--or several mistresses--is not only acceptable in Thailand, it is a sign of wealth and power, but “what is usually required in these relationships, and what has been entirely lacking in the romantic triangle involving General Sunthorn, is a sense of decorum,” the New York Times observed early this month.

Dan Okimoto, a political science professor at Stanford University who specializes in the study of Japanese politics, says most Asians are indifferent toward infidelities by their political leaders largely because Asians don’t have the specific “religious underpinning” of the Judeo-Christian tradition that regards such behavior as a sin.

The Japanese have their own religious and moral standards, of course, but on this issue, their “practical orientation” and their concern with “social and ethical norms, rather than a higher moral law” helps form their tolerant attitudes, Okimoto says.

Two years ago, in the aftermath of disclosures that Japanese Prime Minister Sosuke Uno had had an affair with a geisha four years earlier, Uno’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party suffered a humiliating defeat at the polls and Uno resigned.

Although other factors were involved, a key issue was that Uno had paid the geisha, Mitsuko Nakanishi, “only” $21,000 during their five-month affair and that when the relationship ended, Uno “did not provide consolation money in adequate sums,” Okimoto says.

“It was not so much a . . . question of breaking a code of moral behavior (by cheating on his wife) as it was an ethical or ritualistic question of fairness. . . .

“There are certain expected norms that apply to even those relationships,” Okimoto says.

But the influential religious teachings of the United States have long left this country “stuck, oscillating furiously . . . half still a very Puritanical culture and half a culture devoted to sleaze,” in Pollitt’s words. Out of that conflict, she says, comes both the preoccupation with sex and the ambivalence and uncertainty about sex that almost inevitably lead to journalistic missteps.

There are many other conflicts that may be equally responsible, though, among them conflicts between:

* The American traditions of privacy and a free press.

* The discomfort that leads editors to withhold certain information involving sex and the awareness of reader interest that sometimes leads them to print that same information.

* The sexually liberated “do your own thing” ethos of the 1960s and the growing concern among many children of the ‘60s--baby-boomers belatedly having children of their own--that “the permissive values of the 1960s . . . (might not be) compatible with healthy family lives,” as E. J. Dionne Jr. wrote in the New York Times in 1987.

The 1960s were the formative years for many of today’s journalists, but many also found their belief in individual sexual freedom in conflict with their resentment of the moral bankruptcy they saw in many people in power.

In the 1960s, “all of the rules about sexuality went out the window,” Dionne said in a recent interview, “but another part of the ‘60s was a mistrust of people in authority and a belief that they should not be able to get away with things and especially that they should not be able to get away with hypocrisy.

“Therefore, at the very moment when people’s standards were becoming more liberal, their attitudes toward what should be reported about public officials were . . . broadening,” says Dionne, now a political writer for the Washington Post and the author of the newly published book “Why Americans Hate Politics.”

In earlier generations, the lines between what should and shouldn’t be reported seemed much clearer, especially in the political arena. Reporters knew about President John F. Kennedy’s many affairs, but they didn’t write about them.

Some critics argue that the press didn’t disclose Kennedy’s philandering because reporters liked him and his policies and didn’t want to risk losing their close association with his exciting lifestyle. That was probably at least a partial explanation for their reticence. But President Lyndon B. Johnson’s pursuit of various women was “no secret in the White House press corps,” says Larry Sabato in “Feeding Frenzy,” and the reporters didn’t expose him either, despite the growing, mutual hostility between Johnson and the press.

Sabato argues that a number of shifts in the media and in the social/political climate permanently and radically changed the journalistic ground rules. Many editors (and reporters), accustomed to the old rules, aren’t quite sure how to play by the new ones.

The press mishandles so many sex stories precisely because sex is “a new subject as fodder for serious journalists,” says Ellen Hume of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

Sexual mores are “so much in flux,” Sabato suggested in a recent interview, that what a given newspaper may choose to publish (or not publish) on a given day “almost depends on which individual is calling the shots and how old he or she may be.”

To Sabato, the events that have most affected the press and the political process were what he now terms the “unholy trinity” of the late 1960s and early 1970s--the drowning death at Chappaquiddick of a young woman who had been partying with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and friends; the abrupt ouster of Thomas Eagleton as the 1972 Democratic vice presidential candidate after disclosure of his psychiatric treatment, and the political break-in and White House coverup at the Watergate.

These events, Sabato says, rendered the character, behavior and judgment of politicians “fair game.”

James David Barber’s 1972 book, “The Presidential Character: Predicting Performance in the White House,” contributed significantly to this atmosphere, as did Theodore White’s series on “The Making of the President” and the rise of the so-called “new journalism,” which--like White’s books--relied heavily on the kind of personal detail and narrative structure heretofore more common to fiction than journalism.

For many journalists, a relaxation of the libel laws, beginning with the landmark 1964 case New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan, seemed to provide the legal protection that such writing required.

Two other 1970s events that laid the groundwork that in the mid- and late-1980s would result in the shattering of the status quo:

* In 1974, stripper Fanne Foxe jumped into the Tidal Basin when police stopped the car in which she was riding with Wilbur Mills, the powerful Arkansas congressman. Mills’ drinking, like that of many other politicians, had long been an open secret; this official confrontation with law enforcement suddenly made it a subject for journalistic scrutiny.

* In 1976, Elizabeth Ray told the Washington Post that another well-known congressman, Wayne Hays of Ohio, had put her--his mistress--on his congressional payroll even though she couldn’t even type.

In more recent years, there have been published rumors that at least one presidential candidate was gay (denied and never substantiated), that several had mistresses (denied and never substantiated) and that various other public officials were gay, unfaithful or engaged in other “unapproved” sexual activities.

In his book, Sabato ticks off almost 20 such cases, virtually all involving questionable behavior by the press. Among these were:

* The brief mention, in a Washington Post profile, of “completely unsubstantiated rumors” about the possible homosexuality of a governor.

* The publication in various newspapers of “unproved rumors” that another governor had sponsored “honey hunts . . . hiring prostitutes to frolic around the ranch while chased on horseback by eager cowhands.”

* Stories in various media about attempts to “smear” a prominent congressman by insinuating that he is gay.

The growth of television and its preoccupation with the personal, the superficial and the sensational has fed into this maelstrom of change. Reporters, like most other people, have “always been intrigued by sex--it just matters more now because we’ve become a gossip culture,” says Hume of the Shorenstein Center.

“People’s sex lives are now the stuff of everyday discussion on television,” she says. “This forces the press, as part of the culture, to discuss some of these same subjects.”

Reforms in the presidential nominating process may have played an even greater role in this shift. Indeed, it could be argued that if today’s standards of private behavior had been applied throughout this country’s history, the country would have been deprived of many of its best leaders. But the political parties and their bosses once examined candidates for vulnerabilities before the public campaigns started, trying to weed out those who could embarrass the party and drag it down to defeat.

With the demise of the political boss, the press has come to perform some of this function--in public.

At the same time, political consultants and public opinion polls have made most candidates very cautious about what they say in public. Voters who once based their decisions on political parties, platforms and issues now have much less to rely on.

“If you can’t believe the party platform or what the candidate says, what are you going to base your vote on?” asks Brooks Jackson, a correspondent with the Cable News Network special assignment unit.

Jackson’s answer--which he concedes is “an oversimplification”--is that voters increasingly rely on their “gut feelings” about a candidate’s character and on “what would otherwise seem trivial.”

To many voters, a candidate’s character is more important than his voting record. Candidates who cheat on their wives “may . . . cheat on us,” is the way Jackson sees many voters reasoning. “To many people, the Gary Hart/Donna Rice episode wasn’t really about sex. . . . It was about whether Gary Hart was a flake or not.”

Hart’s behavior--not just with Rice but his changing his name, shaving a year off his age and telling one reporter, “I love danger”--invited this speculation. But Hart also had the misfortune of running for President at a time when the press corps itself was changing dramatically. Over the last 10 or 15 years, the lure of television talk shows, the lecture circuit and big-money book and movie deals has created a star syndrome in the press corps.

As Sabato writes in “Feeding Frenzy”:

“Fame and fortune are . . . waiting at scandal’s end for some in journalism today.”

Perhaps even more important, there are more women in the press corps today, and that has both shattered the good old boy’s conspiracy of silence and helped change (or at least expand) the definition of “news” itself.

Joyce Sherwood of The Times editorial library assisted with the research for this series.