South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, Nevada Sen. John Ensign, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer: It has become routine to hear about promising political careers imperiled by revelations of extramarital sex. Do such revelations matter? Why should the public care about a politician’s private life?
The private lives of our leaders are interesting in the sense that we identify with others – with their daily struggles and interests. We like to point to what someone else does as an example of what they believe. However, one’s private struggles should not make or break a candidate – we don’t elect our leaders to be a moral authority; but a legislative one. But, we are all human and don’t always live up to our own standards. You could have the world’s greatest leader with marital issues, or you could have a dangerous fascist with the perfect family — which would YOU want as a leader?? -Debra Hannu, Duluth, MN
What someone does in private is who they really are. If someone is really an untrustworthy person, then its best to know that before you trust them with something important. If a politician cannot be trusted by their spouse, then why should the public trust them? A leader is not like a technician – perhaps a technician can do a good technical job while being a bad person. But a politician is a leader – being a ‘good person’ is required for being a leader. Not that a politician cannot have privacy! But if they are a ‘bad person’ the public needs to know. -Kevin Watters, Shoreview, MN
I care about a politician’s private life to the extent that it gives me insight into her/his character. So I don’t care about a person’s sexual orientation, but I do care about the extent of the lying people do to hide their extramarital affairs. This is can be confusing – somehow Clinton’s initial lies about the Monica Lewinsky thing seemed like something anyone would do to save his family and himself embarrassment; John Edward’s cheating on his critically ill wife, lying about it, and trying to get someone else to take the fall for the pregnancy of his girlfriend was over the top and indicated a level of selfishness that is unacceptable. -John Lentz, Mahtomedi MN
Because actions speak louder than words, and one’s private actions that one may wish to keep private are relevant when they do not align with words and promises made publically. -Gail Crecelius, St. Paul, MN
Unless they are taking money from somebody who will be affected by their decisions I couldn’t care less. Unfortunately, the qualification I’ve stated above is rarely ever examined. Any other issue is merely fodder for the distraction of the 24 hour news cycle. And the chattering class wonders why nobody ever listens anymore. -Michael Miles, Victoria, MN
By “private life,” I am assuming that you mean “sexual life.” The public is justified in “caring” if the politician has a record of support for laws, amendments or other official public pronouncements that interfere in the private sexual lives of “the public.” If a politician messes with my “private” life, he (it’s usually a “he,” isn’t it?) should expect me to mess with his. If ever there were an issue on which all politicians should be Libertarian, private life is that issue. -Claire Thoen, St. Paul, MN
The public should not care at all, except as it affects the politician’s public life. Paying a prostitute with taxpayer money, leaving one’s office unmanaged, or contracting a venereal disease are all detriments to the job the taxpayers hired you to do. It subjects a politician to pressures, up to and including outright blackmail, that are potentially distracting from their public duties. But the media only cares about “character” and “sleaze” when it’s a Republican. Why is that? -Jerry Ewing, Apple Valley, MN
We don’t need to hear the gory details, but we do need to know when they are dishonest with their partner, and how they deal with the truth. Are they truly penitent or are they just upset because they got caught? Is this a common occurance, or is it their normal history? I base my feelings about people on their honesty and ability to take blame when it is due. -Elaine Duvall, Brook Park, MN
People are not robots. We can not separate our lives into little components that run independently. All of the individuals that were mentioned wanted the public to think one thing about them while they were performing differently in their private lives. Senator John Edwards wanted the public praise for standing by his wife during her crisis and the praise of being recognized as being a “family man”, but in his “secret” life he was cheating on his wife when she desperately needed him. We don’t need politicians who say one thing and do the opposite. Our current president said many things to get elected and is now ignoring his own promises. -Ted Stuckmayer, Winona, MN
Politics is interaction. I feel our representatives, as those who mediate political interaction and decision making thus affect our perceptions of how we interact and reach consensus. When they have done something to alienate themselves or someone else, I believe this harms their ability to mediate interaction and consensus. If we are delegating to this person the task of bringing us together and helping produce equitable policies, they can’t be alienating their family members and members of their community. Politician’s actions speak to their ability to empathize and sympathize, which is most the important quality they could have! -Kevin Ely, Minneapolis, MN
I think the important thing is whether the stance (moral and political) that a politician espouses is in line with their private behaviors. Most politicians are married and have made a life-time commitment to their spouse. A violation of this commitment could indicate that they may also back out of other commitments to their constituency. So, yes it does matter; however, a long-term record is always more important than a few short-term mistakes. -Mary Sullivan, Franklin, MN
I feel this is not a simple black and white question. Knowing things about a politician’s private life often shows blazing hipocracy. A anti-gay rights politician who is a closet gay. A moral, religious, self-righteous politician who takes money under the table or cheats on his wife—-doesn’t that reflect on his public responsibilities as well? On the other hand when media dogs politician’s kids, etc., that I have a problem with. I feel it depends on the situation and how their private life reflects on what they are saying and doing in public, are they honestly who they are projecting themselves to be? -Rae Mathias, Heron Lake, MN
Politicians’ private lives reveal more about their morals than their soundbites. For example, Gary Hart gave some great speeches but fell apart on a personal level. What politicians do in their private lives matters and does impact their public responsibilities. I would not vote for a candidate who espoused law and order, but broke the law regularly. The person is a hypocrit and not someone I want to represent my values. -Susan Yager, Plymouth, MN
Our only legitimate interest in a politician’s private life lies in two areas. First, if the behavior is illegal, it’s our business. And second, if the behavior impacts performance in the public role, it’s our business. In Bill Clinton’s case, we really shouldn’t care that he was messing around on his wife. That said, we should care that he was doing so with an intern. It was sexual harassment pure and simple, no matter how willing Monica Lewinski might have been. Any CEO caught messing with an employee would be gone in a flash. In Sanford’s case, the only concern I have is his public behavior since it came out. Judgement is lacking!! -John Hetterick, Plymouth, MN
In many other countries it is expected that politicians will have affairs. The US was formed partly by Puritans, so the expectations are different. I think it is most significant when the people who lay claim to family values display anything but family values. Hypocrisy is where the line is drawn. So if Newt wants to criticize President Clinton, he better take note of who he is bringing to his bed. -Kathryn Berg, Woodbury, MN
It is fun to divert attention away from real issues. We seldom have serious discussions about those realities and instead, enjoy the non-serious dalliances of our public figures. We can criticize without being materially affected. -John Reay, Minneapolis, MN
The public should care about Gov. Sanford’s private life to the degree that it informs us of significant inconsistencies in his rhetoric, his actions as an elected official, and his personal behavior. The resulting awareness calls into question his ability to form defensible moral positions, his capacity to make valid public policy, and his willingness to live within the constraints of the civil code he espouses. -Douglas Toavs, Chisago City, MN
Generally, I think that their private lives are nobody’s business, and revealing them often hurts innocent others. But there is one big exception. When public figures are caught doing things that directly contradict their vehement public stands, the world needs to know about their crass hypocrisy. -Paul Lareau, Little Canada, MN
They shouldn’t. -Mark Wohlers, Minneapolis, MN
When that politician makes it a cornerstone of his campaign for election, that he’s a family man with family values, blah blah rather than sticking to policy issues, and then it turns out that he was completely LYING about his family values, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that most of everything else he says is also a lie. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Every one of them should be hounded from office. And when “family values” includes stances against our gay friends and neighbors, and they are legislating against people who share their (closeted) orientation, well, those people are too sick to serve. -Angela Humbert, Bloomington, MN
I only care when the private life involves a conflict of interest or obvious hypocracy. Otherwise, news about the private life is pure sensationalism. -Fred Green, Minneapolis, MN
Politicians leave “private life” when they file for elective office. They can expect gossip and personal attacks in the course of getting elected and serving. If they can’t take this heat, they should find work behind the scenes. If they mess up in any way, they need to come clean – explain circumstances and apologize. If they cannot be truthful and reliable with friends, family, and the public, then they should leave the public’s business to others who can meet this basic qualification for office. -Gord Prickett, Aitkin County, MN
Depends. If it effects the person politcal position, we should care. Some are able continue to be good leaders in spite of any personal issues they may have. If it distracts them, changes decision making motivations or impacts how they do their job, we should care. In the current case, missing a week of work is unacceptable and he should be fired as would any of us who were in the same position. -Margaret Kelaart, Minneapolis, MN
The public should care about a politician’s private life only when it speaks directly to character. Barack Obama’s association people like Bill Ayers and Reverend Wright are relevant, Clinton performing sexual acts in the Oval Office is instructive. They provide insight into the fiber, fabric & beliefs of a person. Some would conclude Obama is forgiving or that Clinton is loving – others would make different judgments. Character counts. As an aside, the crude reporting & sexualized depiction of the Palin daughters is also telling – not of the Palin’s, but instead of the values of the people in the mainstream media & entertainment world. -Ron Kirscht, Garfield, MN
We are who we are. If we are a liar and a cheat in our “private life”, why should anyone expect us to behave differently in our public lives? The public needs to be able to trust their elected represtentatives, and actions do matter. The old saying “actions speak louder than words” does apply here. That is why the public should care about a politician’s private life. -Doug Campbell, Bloomington, MN
The manner in which a person conducts their private life is an indication of how trustworthy they are. If they are willing to lie and cheat the on people that mean the most to them what chance do we, the voters, have that they have our best interests at heart. If a person in a position of power doesn’t have character to do the right thing, they will be undependable in a crises. -Glen Reiner, Miltona, MN
The public elects a politician based on their judgement and character. An affair calls both into question and casts doubt on their ability to lead and vote with integrity and honesty. The debate about separating a politician’s public and private life is, in my opinion, irrelevant. A politician campaigns on the promise to be a public servant and that is what they are. The prestige and power (and in some cases the opportunity to further a cause that you fundamentally believe in) is compensation for foregoing that privacy. In short, the public not only has the right but the obligation to be a check against the moral code of our leaders. -Kira Vanderwert, St. Paul, MN
Same reason would should care about most things: lying is wrong and always has consequences that are hurtful and wasteful. A politician bogged down in heartache, deception, investigation and spin is NOT able to do the job they said they would do. Lots of examples, worst one- Bill Clinton, fooling around that led to huge waste of time and money, commander-in-chief worrying about his own tail / tale while Osama and buddies were plotting against us. Lots of other reasons why 911 happened, but… it matters ’cause burning Americans had to jump off the world trade centers. Politicians that lie waste good Americans time and money. Don’t care? Liar. -Brian Reilly, Hastings, MN
My dad always said “Integrity is doing the right thing when no one is looking.” If a person, be it a politician, a finanacial advisor, a mechanic, or whom ever cannot do the right thing when no one is looking then I may not trust that person to do the right thing when working on my car, or managing my money, or in office. Honesty and trust flow from the things one does in their life. Would you trust a Financial Advisor with your money if they were out cheating on their spouse? I wouldn’t. And that why this matters. -Wally Andress, Golden Valley, MN
People should care about a politician’s private life only so far as it contracdicts their public life record. If a politician publicly speaks & acts to condemn extra-marital behavior, then and only then is his own extra-martial behavior subject to public comment. This applies to any “family values” GOP member, as well as to Eliot Spitzer whose career involved crackdowns on prostitution. Bill Clinton marks a strong contrast, as someone whose public political works and speeches laid entirely outside the bedroom. -Joe Schaedler, Minneapolis, MN
I am somewhat divided on this. On the one hand, I don’t care what they do in their private life. However…In our most recent case, he was distracted from doing his job and there should be consequences for that. If a politician runs with “family values” or some such as a part of their platform, I think they should practice what they preach. If a person is willing to cheat on his or her spouse, what else are they willing to lie about? It makes then vulnerable to manipulation & blackmail. But sometimes I get the sense, say with the Clintons, that there is a private agreement between spouses, in which case, it’s none of our business! -Camille Holthaus, Minneapolis, MN
On my first glance- of course it matters! Then each instance bears different answers- but when it hits the floor ALL will indeed be affected by their private endeavors. As a rule, the voting public disdains such extra-marital affairs. No matter how bad it gets for these fellows- none of them lost a governorship to Jesse AND a Senate seat to Al….HA!! -Glenn Farwell, Oakdale, MN
It can reveal rank hypocrisy, deceptiveness and lack of impulse control, all of which are traits most people do not want in their elected officials. -David Boyce, St. Paul, MN
Hypocrisy. To the publics eye presenting one’s self as a flag wrapped Saviour of society claiming Family values as a political and moral stance (high ground) while in the “dark” of night deceiving themselves,family and voters with actions contrary to the espoused values. -Phil Smith, White Bear Lake, MN
It is only when a politician screams about family and personal values as her/his mantra for personal behavior and then ‘gets caught’ being too human that I get angry and think about their personal lives. We are a funny society, though. We want our politicians to abide by a code that a lot of us couldn’t even begin to. Perhaps we are looking for heroes….who knows? -Mary Beth Blegen, Farmington, MN
Private behavior should inform the public as to the politician’s moral/ethical behavior. If he cheats on his wife, he will certianly cheat on the public. If he accepts favors from industry/wealthy, who is he going to take care of, the public or industry/wealthy donors. Some things should be out of bounds, children and family members. -Steve Fuller, Grand Rapids, MN
The public should not. There is very little connection between presidential “character” (as we usually define it) and the ability to govern well. Some of our least distinguished presidents have been pious, honest men. Some of our greatest presidents–men like FDR–were remarkably flawed human beings. The qualities that allow someone to be a great leader are fascinating and worth study, but they have nothing to do with “character” as our media uses that phrase. -Steve Grooms, St. Paul, MN
I DON’T CARE!!! That’s it. Anything more numbs my brain cells to unacceptable levels. But since a majority of this country, happen to be “Bleeping” labotomized idiots who spend half their life watching reality T.V. it really shouldn’t be a surprise that the rest of the country gives a damn. Something like 20,000 people die each year in this country from not having health insurance, but no one seems to notice because they are too busy discussing what Mark Sanford, or Eliot Spitzer or Jon & Kate do with their genitals. It might matter maybe if they build their careers on telling everyone else how we ought to live, but otherwise, NO! -Kevin Knack, St. Paul, MN
In this increasingly divisive culture we like to see our politicians as saints and the opposition as devils. When ‘our’ people fail the saint test, they are only human. When ‘theirs’ do, it is proof that the whole premise of the party is wrong. In a 24/7 news cycle the media is scrambling for a scoop. We don’t want our party seen in that light. A politician who strays is seen as corruptible – not worthy of our trust. -Nancy Austin, Stillwater, MN
When politicians keep government and their religion separate, and aren’t hypocritical, then the public won’t have grounds to care. Until then, I shall relish each time when a politician contradicts the same Values they try to force upon my private body. -Laura Holmbeck, Lakeville, MN
A different angle on the same question: I’ve seriously considered a run for political office. I have family members who are politically connected, and I’m an articulate public speaker; however, I will never run for political office because I don’t want to put up with the public scrutiny and loss of privacy. Everybody makes an embarrassing decision at some point in their lives, and I’d rather not have my personal missteps be public information. (Having said that, scrutiny can still be accountability. For example, it has been poetic justice that some of the strongest political opponents of gay marriage have turned out themselves to be gay!) -Ryan Flanders, Minneapolis, MN
As an elected official (county commissioner) I beleive we should only be interested as the issue pertains to an official’s good judgement. We elect officials to examine eveidence and then, based on the information at hand, make the best judgement with constituents interests in mind. If an official is percieved to have poor judgement in his personal life it may make sense to infer his judgement may be flawed in his official capacity. On the other hand we are all sinners and I do beleive we can all be more acccepting of other people’s in adequacies. It’s easier to see the speck in another person’s eye than the log in one’s own. -Rick Morris, Waseca, MN
Yes, especially when your party’s platform emphasizes ‘family values’. -anonymous text message
Public officials should reflect the positive aspects of society. Being a role model is something that all public officials should take as a requirement before they decide to pursue public office. -Hans Hansen, Spring Lake Park, MN
It is very important to understand the character of the individual when we give them the authority to affect our lives. This is a Republic, and we give the leaders a limited authority to speak for us on certain matters. If they are not trustworthy, honest, sincere, and lack the basic values we hold, why should we expect them to do otherwise when they respond to our interests? It is very important. -Jim McKie, St. Paul, MN
We should care only in that it’s easier to trust someone whose public and private faces are congruent. In addition, it appears that maintaining an affair and keeping it a secret is an enormous burden and has to be a distraction from preferred job performance. What with wiping browser history, editing emails, slinking about and all the other requirements for a properly dubious private life I’m surprised any of them get any real work done. -Brent Olson, Ortonville, MN
Of course it matters! Poor judgement in someone’s personal life leads me to expect poor judgement in one’s life in general, including their job. -anonymous text message
Normally, I don’t think that the private life of a politician is all that important as long as no laws are broken. However, when a politician uses his position and power over someone in his chain of command (Clinton) and in the professional offices of a public institution (the White House), it becomes a concern about abuse of power or authority. Similarly, when a politician deceives the public and his staff about his whereabouts and abdicates his role of governor of his state for a time, then it becomes a very important public issue about the dedication and the competence of that governor to manage the state’s affairs. -Dan Hoxworth, Mahtomedi MN
A politician’s sexual acts with consenting adults should not concern the public. Politicians’ sex lives are irrelevant. Their marriages are not official state events; they are not high priests of domestic propriety, they need not produce an heir to the throne, they do not enrich the fertility of the land through sexual acts, and they do not embody the state. What the public really needs to know about their politicians is where their loyalties REALLY lay, and how they intend to serve those with wealth and power (as opposed to their commitments to the poor and powerless). Sex and politics is the prurient interest of puritan oppressiveness. -Michael Jefferis, Minneapolis, MN
It absolutely matters. If a person can’t be trusted to be faithful to a spouse, how can he or she be trusted elsewhere in his or her life? -Eric Schubert, Inver Grove Heights, MN
I really don’t care- we should be focused on the ramifications of their policies. News about misconduct and the like detracts from more important news: health care, environment, education, economy, our crumbling infrastructure, etc. I think some would like us distracted from the real issues that we need to be engaged about. It feeds a growing (and unfounded) distrust of government. -Joseph Mish, Pine Island, MN
If they lie to their family what are they doing to tax payers? -anonymous text message
If a politician will cheat on his/her spouse, he/she will cheat on their constituents. If we want to measure the character of our elected officials, we must consider how they behave when they believe no one is looking, at least while they serve their term of office. -Steven Brown, Albertville, MN
We care about politicians private lives when their activities become hypocritical of their stated beliefs and antithetical to the practice of their office. In Spitzer’s case he was the highest ranking official of the executive branch and was caught doing business with a prostitute which is illegal. In Spitzer’s case the affair is less important than the act of breaking the law. The latter was in direct moral opposition of his stated oath to enforce the laws of New York state. With Mark Sanford the hypocracy of his affair has completely destroyed the moral authority he invoked to condemn homosexuals or exercise evangelical righteousness. -William Pappas, Stillwater, MN
We ought to be willing to forgive—after all, everyone I know is flawed, but there are cases where a politician’s personal failings make it clear he/she isn’t the person we thought we elected. When a politician can’t be trusted be his own wife, why should the public trust him? The failings of one politician don’t make me stop believing in the values that politician and I share, but no politician is irreplaceable, and undoubtedly there are many cases, including in SC, where a city, state, party, etc. is better off when a person whose personal life has become such a distraction or reason for mistrust that he ought to resign. -Chad Eslinger, Brooklyn Park MN
Unfortunately, what I learned in advanced PolSci classes long ago is still true today: Regardless of how/why people say they vote or support politicians, in the 80% range choose by personality. Since US “media” developed, starting with mass newspapers, people have dropped substance out of their leadership decisions. Entertainment and superficiality abound. ‘Who’ is doing ‘what’ has become the most important factor. The public shouldn’t care about irrelevant parts of private life, but they do. Since ones’ personna is all that people care about, elements of private life at least show us what kind of character the politician has. Unfortunate! -Richard Novack, Edina, MN
Yes, especially when your party’s platform emphasizes ‘family values’. -Becky, Minneapolis, MN
We shouldn’t. We just do so we feel better about our own decision to stay out of public life. I think it’s for gossip, boredom, and the only time it is of interest when it goes specifically against something they are campaigning with; ie – prevention of gay rights when they are themselves (privately) on the down low, or make a huge stance for monogomy or “family values” – when they themselves are pointing at others and yet doing the same thing. That i think then opens themselves up for public scrutiny. when they are making judgments on the public’s private lives, then – by all means – they should be themselves scrutinized 10 fold. -Abbi Allan, Minneapolis, MN
It gives insight to the person, their values, how they honor commitments, loved ones and social standards of conduct. -Anita Ratwik, St. Paul, MN
To a certain extent, we shouldn’t care about a politician’s private life. But some things, when they become public, have ramifications beyond the politician’s family and close friends. Gov. Sanford is the most recent (and perhaps best) example of this: by sneaking off to visit his mistress, he not only betrayed his wife and children but also left the ship of state without a captain, and proved to his constituents that he had solely his own interest in mind. When revelations like that become public–when a politician proves himself self-indulgent and untrustworthy–it is in the public’s best interest to know and to take action accordingly. -Kacia Lee, Minneapolis, MN
Normally no. But if you run on ‘family values’ then you are shown to be a hypocrite. -Heather, Champlin, MN
The public should care about any public servant’s integrity. It should therefore care about deceit or fraud of any kind. Cheating on one’s spouse is not more serious than taking a bribe. Sex between consenting adults, same or other, is nobody’s business, unless it involves cheating on a committed partner. -Evan Hazard, Bemidji, MN
It determines the politician’s vulnerability to intimidation from people in low places. We need representatives that will do the right thing, not cover their backside. -Roger O’Daniel, Minneapolis, MN
As NY attorney general, Eliot Spitzer very effectively prosecuted the type of financial games that have driven the world to the brink of another Great Depression. Does anyone really believe that our country is better off with him out of office? I don’t. We need people like Spitzer. And we need to accept that politicians are just as flawed as the rest of us. -David Gardiner, Maple Plain, MN
If it affects his or her ability to govern they should care. In the case of Mark Sanford, it obviously did. In the case of Bill Clinton not so much. -Nicole Masika, Brooklyn Center, MN
It is relevant only in so much as it reveals hypocrisy. If a politician is all about family values but can’t practice it, to me that reveals that the politician is out of touch with reality. -Janne Flisrand, Minneapolis, MN
I would prefer that elected officials always and only be referred to as “public servants”. Leader, or “statesman/person” should only be used in review of their service. -anonymous text message
Perhaps it would influence an electors opinion if they knew the candidates had a history of embezzelment or pedophilia, prostitution, adultery, blackmail, murder, alcoholism, drug addiction, etc (although these and more are well represented by our current congress). -Rodney Gingrich, St. Paul, MN
In general, we shouldn’t. But when, for example, a politician is hypocritical, my values are violated. At this point, I CARE about his or her private life — but I don’t need to HEAR about it over and over and over. -Ellen McEvoy, St. Paul, MN
I don’t mind politicians kanoodling around, as it seems that most of history’s great leaders had overactive sexual appetites. I just don’t want to hear about it, and I don’t want to pay for the gifts or travel required to maintain that lifestyle. -Eric Fyle, St.Paul, MN
I think what happens privately within the family or marriage of a politician should remain that: private. It seems hypocritical to point the finger to a public figure while extramarital affairs remain a reality in many families outside of public life. This is not to say it is okay to “cheat”; it is not, but it should remain a private matter within the family so long as not an actual crime has been committed, or the law has been broken, etc. It is easy to judge about someone in the public light, while we do not know the emotional factors that contributed to the affair. The state of a politician’s marriage does not neccesarily disqualify him! -Sylvia Chandler, Chanhassen MN
It is indicative of their judgment or lack thereof. I personally want judicious men and women serving in public office. -Tom, Anoka, MN
With politicians spending millions on image boosting hype the public has no real ability to measure their integrity. A public office holders private life is a reflection of how honest and moral that person may be. If a politician objects to this “invasion of privacy” than go into another line of work! -David Foxworth, Mahtomedi MN
They who would set themselves above us to govern must have our trust, else the system fails. If a man’s own wife cannot trust him to be faithful to her, why, then, should we trust that he can govern in good faith? There are already enough jokes about cheating, corrupt politicians without having them prove the truth of it. Were a politician and their spouse to live an openly ‘open’ relationship, I would have no problem with ‘marital infidelity’, since that is part of their lifestyle choice. However, I would be surprised if an ‘open’ politician would get elected as that sort of liberal lifestyle is still frowned on by our society at large. -Daniel Dillman, St. Cloud, MN
I dont agree with the affairs of politicians however, i just want to know they can do their job right. Their personal life is their own business. -Richard
They should only care if it affects job performance, or if it conflicts with the policy rhetoric of the politician. If politicians campaign on ‘family values’ and support laws that seek to control the personal lives of constituents, then if their personal life is in contradiction to those laws, the hypocrisy should be exposed. -Richard Rowan, St. Paul, MN
It matters. The true test of a persons character is how they conduct themselves when they think no one is looking. -Bob Hicks, St. Paul, MN
People generally have two faces; the one they wear when they need to be professional and the one they wear when they are with friends and family. But whether they are in the public or in private, their core remains the same. If they are honest and trustworthy in private, then so will they be in public. If I know how someone treats their family, how they run a business and how they have impacted the community they live in, I can make a better choice in who I vote for to represent me in state and federal matters. -Marilyn Geller, Laporte MN
A politician’s private life is no different than anyone else’s. If they happen to go outside of what is considered ‘correct’ behavior than they should be required to answer for that behavior. The ‘good old days’ when a politician could hide their actions behind the name of the office is gone. When a person goes into politics they need to realize that they are now under a microscope of the public eye and everything that they are doing, will do and even have done in the past will be very, very carefully looked at. -Stephen Cheesebrow, St. Paul, MN
I’m not sure the public needs to care about a politician’s private life. Of course, it’s human nature to want to know basic details, such as marital status, children, childhood experiences, etc., but unless or until our elected officials’ private activities interfere with their public duties, or break laws, I think it advisable not to intrude. Their policy views, and their effectiveness in implementing their policy views, are what impacts me as their constituent. If laws are broken or duties are neglected, then I do look to their peers to investigate and keep me informed. -Rita Warner, St. Paul, MN
It’s not the crime. It’s the cover up! It’s the hypocrisy! It is about being duplicit! -Daniel Fix, St. Paul, MN
Undoubtedly, how one conducts oneself in their “private life” is a reflection on their virtue or lack of virtue. If someone fails to make wise choices privately why should we assume that they won’t do the same publicly? Privately, Clinton had an affair. As a politician, Clinton lied under oath. Privately, Sanford had an affair. As a politician, Sanford spent state money to travel to his mistress. A politician’s decisions in his private life cannot be cleanly separated from his ability to make decisions professionally. -Anne Taylor, Arden Hills, MN
If a politician’s private life is interfering with his or her official duties, or if it is leading to illegal or unethical behavior (such as visiting one’s mistress at the taxpayers’ expense), then the public has a right to know. While a politician cheating on their wife is not really newsworthy, when that same politician takes political positions based on so-called “Christian morality,” and that same politician grandstands at every opportunity, and attempts to enforce their religious or moral beliefs on everybody else, they should expect to be held to a higher level of public scrutiny. -Erik Farseth, Minneapolis, MN
Jefferson said that the new nation should have “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” The public has the right to expect the same deference from the people it elects to serve them. Not slavish or absolute adherence to some arbitrary standard, but behavior that neither insults nor degrades the institution for which the officeholder has been chosen, nor the voters who entrusted them with power. Standards change with time; it was previously fatal for a president to have been divorced, e. g. “Egregious” is a slippery word, but in general, the public knows it when they see it, and make their indignation known. -Irl Carter, White Bear Lake, MN
If politicians can not be trusted to be faithful with their spouse how can they be trusted to be faithfull about anything else? -Harley Pierce, Minneapolis, MN
Even a politician deserves some privacy. But a politician is a public servant, not merely a celebrity, with an obligation to act for the public good. And if a public servant’s private behavior leaves me wondering about their integrity, then I lose confidence in their leadership. If Sen. Larry Craig seeks gay sex while voting against civil rights for gays, I want to know about it. He is a self-dealing hypocrite, and I don’t want him in public office. If Rep. William Jefferson has family members who are “consultants” and “lobbyists” for other nations, he too is self-dealing and exploiting his office for his own and his family’s gain. -Gail Dekker, St. Paul, MN
Many of the Qualities we want in our public servants would be exhibited or not in their private lives. Honest, Respectful, Listens, Communicates Well, Cooperative and Dedicated. -Jayne Caldwell, New Hope, MN
One’s private life is a measure of one’s integrity. We say we want people of integrity in office. But a sex scandal sells more news than thoughtful legislative policy. Maybe tomorrow’s question can be “Why should the media care about public policy?” Why didn’t the MN legislature finish their work on time? -Merlin Peterson, Glenwood, MN
Character is character. The way a person behaves in private indicates the way s/he will behave in other spheres. Secret sins will poison a person’s interactions, decisions, and insights. -Amy Anderson, St. Paul, MN
A politician’s private life becomes a public matter only when his/her private behavior impinges on his/her public duties or obligations. Mark Sanford left his job without telling anyone where he was. Furthermore, he built his political persona as a set of values that he violated in his private life. -Margaret Jo Shepherd, New York, NY
If the only thing we are talking about is extramarital sex, I’m not sure the public should care. Unless a public officials behavior directly affects how he or she handles political issues, it doesn’t really affect people and isn’t our business. Murder, embezzlement, tax evasion, illegal behaviors, yes. Those we need to know about. Sex. Not so much. -Mary Nelson, Minneapolis, MN
I do not see how one can separate public from personal judgement when considering the actions of an elected or appointed official. In their positions, trusted to represent the interests of so many others and to protect the resources over which they have control, they must consider the long-term implications of any action, be it personal or public. In today’s environment of free and open world-wide communication politicians lose the power to separate the personal from the public. -Sieglinde Gassman, St. Paul, MN
We shouldn’t unless their behavior demonstrates a dishonesty or lack of integrity that can be proven to interfere with their ability to govern or puts their decision making in question. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” -Marian Severt, Brainerd, MN
Not everything in a politician’s private life should be public. Non-adult children should be off limits. But financial information should be transparent so we can judge possible corruption. And how people deal with challenges in their lives (like infidelity) show us how they may deal with other challenges. Everyone makes mistakes people who won’t admit them may not be good public servants. -Avonelle Lovhaug, Shoreview, MN
I honestly do not care about a politician’s personal affairs in regards to his spouse, affectional orientation or extramarital activities. What I do care about are personal beliefs in regards to racism, abortion, education, health care and equal opportunity that will impact the lives of constituents when the politician is voting on these issues. If the elected individual is harming another person through physical abuse and/or verbal and emotional threats, that would be a concern to me. However, when two consenting adults joined in a partnership (marriage or otherwise) decide to “work it out”, that is their issue and not mine. -Rebecca Lund, Maplewood, MN
Maybe we shouldn’t to the extent we do, but I think we learn less from the revelation than from how that politician follows through. Do they make excuses? (No one will ever be able to say “I’m hiking the Appalachian Trail” without a resounding round of sniggers in response) Do they truly protect their family? Do they fight their spouse for the Dominican vacation home? If their private life includes paying household help under the table or not paying their taxes or soliciting prostitutes, then of course the public should know. To err is human, to break the law is… criminal. -Sandra Evans, St. Paul, MN
Share your reply in the comments: Why should the public care about a politician’s private life?
In this chapter, we look at the relationship between a person's right to privacy and the public's right to know about that person's life. We discuss what it means to be a public figure and what rights journalist have to examine their lives and the lives of their families. We conclude by examining the rights of people to grieve in private.
The first duty of a journalist is to let people know what is going on in the world around them, so that they can make their own decisions about what to think, do or say.
Problems arise where the right of society to be informed conflicts with the right of individuals to privacy.
This is an area where sensitivity is important and where your concern for the individual must be balanced with your responsibility to society as a whole.
On issues of privacy and public interest, there is often no clear-cut distinction between right and wrong. We can give some general guidance and suggest a few rules, but you will have to decide what to do case-by-case.
The conflict for journalists
Whenever you cover a story where there is a chance of conflict between the public's right to know and the individual's right to privacy, the first thing you should do is ask yourself two questions:
Will I intrude on a person's private life by the way I collect the news? For example, should you go up to grieving parents and try to interview them about their murdered son? Should you approach a politician at a social event and ask him questions about his work?
Will I intrude on people's private life by publishing or broadcasting the story? For example, should you publish a story about a local sporting star leaving his spouse and children for another woman or man?
It is often possible to justify publishing something about a person's private life in the public interest, even though you cannot justify upsetting them in the way you gather the news. An example of this is when covering a tragedy. You may be able to justify telling your readers or listeners about the murder of a child, even though the publicity will cause the parents further grief. But you might not be able to justify going up to the parents and asking questions while they are shocked and grieving.
There are some very clear conflicts and not many simple answers. We will guide you through some of the main problem areas, giving you as much advice as possible. But in the end, you and your fellow journalists will still have to make hard decisions yourselves.
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It is important to define what is meant by "private lives". In cases where people have jobs with normal working hours, the boundaries are usually clear between their private lives and their work. The bus driver becomes an employee when he starts his working day and reverts to being a private individual when he finishes work. He can be as rude, unhelpful and abusive as a he wants in private, but is expected to be polite and helpful when on duty.
The distinction between private and public lives becomes less clear when people carry on part of their professional life outside of normal working hours. A successful businessman needs to make contacts at any time, a social worker may decide to call on a client on his or her way home, just for a chat. They are carrying their professional lives into their private time, but are they merging their professional and private lives?
The distinction almost ceases to exist in cases where an individual's work or professional life depends entirely on them presenting their total selves to the public. Politicians are the best examples. People elect politicians to office for who they are, not just for their skills in a particular job. A politician's career depends on meeting lots of people and being popular with voters. Priests are another group who present their total selves to the public, especially their parishioners.
Then there are people in the world of entertainment who depend for their success on the image they project to the public. Many deliberately blur the distinction between their on-screen and off-screen personalities to achieve success. For example, many film stars like to appear glamorous in real life and have their photographs published in newspapers and magazines so that they remain well-known and will be chosen for another movie.
Although it is often difficult to separate a person's private life from their public role, most of us can recognise the limits in individual professions and specific cases.
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How far can you probe into a person's private life to get news? This is most easily answered where the individuals are public figures, especially where they are people who have put themselves forward for public positions of trust. We are talking here particularly about people like politicians, group leaders, clergymen and all those people whose personalities and private morality are essential parts of their work.
You must make a distinction between those people who have voluntarily entered the public arena and those who are forced into it by circumstances they could not reasonably have expected. For example, a businessman who holds a press conference to announce some new money-making project is seeking public attention; the airline hostess who suddenly discovers she has contracted a rare tropical disease has simply been thrust into the news against her will.
You could justify probing into both the public and private finances of the businessman. You cannot justify digging up scandalous details of the flight attendant's private life where it does not have any relevance to the story of the disease.
There is also the question of who is a public figure. Most journalists would accept that it is their duty to examine the whole life of someone like the President of the United States in detail because he put himself forward to be President. His press secretary acts as the President's mouthpiece on many public issues and is expected to reflect the President's thinking. Is the press secretary a public figure? Would journalists be justified in publishing stories about his affair with an office cleaner?
The answer to the first question is that maybe he is a public figure. The answer to the second question is probably "No", we should not write about his affair with the office cleaner - unless he was giving the cleaner government secrets in bed, and she was passing them on to an enemy. Or if there was a chance that he could be blackmailed into betraying his public trust because of the affair.
Royalty and other hereditary leaders
It is difficult to put hereditary leaders such as royalty in the classes we have just discussed. Although they are obviously public figures, they did not put themselves forward for office in the same way as politicians. Neither do they depend on being liked by the public, although most of them probably want to be.
So the question is: How much privacy can they expect? The answer will vary between different societies and different hereditary leaders. In some societies, royalty is treated almost like public property, with the media feeling that they can comment on anything they do, in public or in private. In other societies, it is not acceptable to criticise royalty at all, even in their public lives.
You must bear in mind the conventions in your own society, and ask the following questions: Does your society in general believe that their hereditary leaders should be questioned or criticised? If it does, how far can the media go in criticism? Can you criticise their public performance in office? Can you examine even their most private lives?
Do you as a journalist have the right to criticise their behaviour under special circumstances, even if the tradition is not to question them? If they accept public funds, can they be criticised for corruption? How bad must their behaviour be before you should report on it?
There is no single answer to these questions. The answers depend on your society. But if you ask yourself the questions, you might find the answers for your society.
The right to know
There are a number of specific reasons why the media have the right to probe the private lives of public figures.
Where a person's character is an essential part of performing their public role, the public has the right to know any facts which reveal special aspects of their character, especially faults. This is because:
Private morality can tell us something about the person's character, and how it could affect their professional performance. If, in his private life, a public figure is found to have lied in a serious way, the public should be made aware that he could be lying in his work, too. Where public figures are responsible for setting a moral tone in society, any private immorality should be exposed as hypocrisy. For example, society should be aware that a leading campaigner against child abuse regularly beats his own children.
The media should constantly examine the lives of public figures with responsibility for public funds and other assets. Politicians who have the power to influence the awarding of contracts should accept that their private friendships with business people should be open to public view. After all, it is taxpayers' money they could be giving away illegally. Politicians can promise voters that their friendships will never influence them in public office. As a journalist, you should monitor whether they keep that promise.
If any misdeeds in private could be used to blackmail that person into compromising their public trust, the public has the right to know about it. In 1963, newspapers revealed that the British Defence Minister John Profumo had been sleeping with a woman who was also having a sexual relationship with the military attaché at the Soviet embassy in London. Although it was never suggested that the woman had passed British secrets from Profumo to her Soviet lover, Profumo was forced to resign in disgrace, largely because secrets could have been passed. To make matters worse, Profumo, a married man, had lied to the British Parliament about his affair. High office carries a heavy burden as well as great rewards.
News must be unusual and interesting, but we cannot expect always to find an educational aspect of every story we cover. Many people read newspapers and listen to the radio simply to know what is happening in the world around them, whether or not it will make them better people.
However, there is a dividing line between those things which the public has a right to know and those which individuals have a right to keep private, no matter how interesting they might be to other people. If a public figure's strange behaviour in the privacy of his own home has no possible effect on his public role, the media cannot claim they have a duty to report it. They would simply be invading the person's privacy.
It is not easy either to define or maintain a balance, but you have the responsibility to try.
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The right to privacy
Public figures still have the right to some privacy, where it can be shown that there is no overlap with the performance of their public role.
They have the right to relax away from the eyes of the public. For example, it might be unwise for a prime minister to play cards for money if gambling is not approved of in your society. However, if he plays with a group of friends within the privacy of his own home, perhaps he is entitled to some relaxation.
The public does have the right to question their methods of relaxation when public figures use their position to gain preferential treatment. For example, if a government minister asked the local golf club to close its greens for the day so that he could play uninterrupted with his friends, it could be argued that he was abusing his authority. The community (especially members of the club) should be informed.
In the matter of privacy, entertainers often make a plea for special treatment as public figures. They argue that, as they are not appointed or elected to positions of public trust, their off-stage or off-screen lives are nobody's business but their own. They say that they play a fantasy role in a movie or a television show, and their real lives are private.
For journalists, the issue centres on whether public figures use publicity to promote a good image of themselves to the public. If they do, they cannot reasonably claim that the media should also not expose their bad qualities.
Much depends on the way they portray themselves both on and off the screen (or stage or page). If the entertainers themselves deliberately merge their on-screen and off-screen personalities, the media and the public can be forgiven for confusing the two and taking an interest in their private lives. If a serious actor makes his living from his performances but does not attempt to gain extra publicity when off the stage, he would have more success in demanding a private life away from media attention.
This argument also extends to sportsmen and women who try to be public personalities off the field as well as on it. If they use the media to make money, they cannot be surprised when the media use their private lives to sell newspapers.
The more that people use the media machine, the more they can expect to be used by it.
How far should the families of public figures be the subject of media scrutiny? If a famous film star's son is arrested on a drug charge, should that be given more prominence than another person on a similar charge? The media often argue that they cover such stories not from the angle of the son's misdeeds but the effect it has on his famous father, assuming that the star's life is public property. Some journalists also argue that the son probably enjoyed the financial or social benefits of his father's position in the community and should, therefore, accept the responsibilities which go with the benefits. However, the situation is far from clear. Inexperienced journalists should leave such decisions to their senior colleagues until they have gained enough experience to know in their own hearts what is right.
The situation is slightly clearer in cases where people have been thrust into the public eye through no decision of their own. Should the media concern itself with the private lives of the families of the astronauts who died in the Challenger space shuttle? If one of the widows marries a man half her age, should the media cover the story even though it causes her distress?
You are often able to make judgments based on your own perception of what is news for your readers or listeners in particular cases. For example, would you cover any or all of the following stories?
- A film star's son commits suicide.
- The Police Minister's wife is caught stealing.
- The council surveyor's daughter is on a drink-driving charge.
We stress that there is no single right or wrong answer, but these are the kinds of questions you should discuss with colleagues, taking into account all relevant factors.
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Journalists have to be especially sensitive during certain times in people's lives. The media should respect the privacy of even the most prominent public figure if a loved one dies. This does not mean that you avoid covering the story. In fact, tragic deaths are often the kind of story your readers or listeners will be interested in. However, you should approach all tragedies with sensitivity and even try to find alternative sources of information.
Many people have family and friends who gather round at times of tragedy. Often, one or two relatives or friends will take responsibility for doing practical tasks such as arranging the funeral or answering telephone calls, while the others mourn. Instead of approaching a dead man's grieving widow or a murdered child's mother, first try the close relative who has taken on the role of communicating with the outside world. Once you have established links with them, you can ask whether or not you can talk to the wife or the mother, but stress that the decision is entirely theirs. Some people actually welcome the opportunity to talk to the media at such times, either because it is an emotional release or because they believe that their loved one was important enough for their death to be recorded in the media.
In radio or television, you can justify broadcasting an interview with a grieving relative, sobs and all. However, the sobs and gasps should not be included simply for the emotional effect they will have on your viewers or listeners. They must be part of the way your interview is telling the story.
If, in an emotional outburst, the subject tells you to go away and leave them alone, it would be insensitive to broadcast that simply for effect. People should be allowed to grieve in their own way and we should not judge them at such times.
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Journalists as public figures
Everything we have said about privacy and publicity applies also to journalists. If you believe you have the right to inform the public and you do it responsibly, you can argue for the same treatment for your private life.
However, if you overstep those boundaries to sell more papers or attract more viewers or listeners, you have no right to argue for special treatment if others overstep the same boundaries to examine your private life.
This is especially true of those journalists who indulge in the cult of the news personality. The more journalists put their own personality into their presentation of the news, the more they can expect others (especially other journalists) to focus attention on their personalities, both public and private. The person who simply and objectively reads the news bulletins can expect to enjoy a private life; the one who presents a television chat show or writes a personal comment column in a newspaper must accept the risks associated with fame.
You have a right to report on the public life of public figures
You can report on the private life of public figures if
- it tells something about their character which might affect their public duty
- they are responsible for public assets
- their private misdeeds could affect the public good
You have no right to intrude on a person's private life where there is no public benefit
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