What’s fit to print? You get to decide

bcuddy@thetribunenews.comDecember 1, 2012 

The Tribune and other local media have taken a beating for going public with the story about county Supervisor Bruce Gibson’s affair with his legislative aide. Some have compared us to the scandal-sheet National Enquirer, while others have said that characterization is unfair to the Enquirer.

I’m not involved in making editorial policy here, but I have been involved at other newspapers. I think Gibson’s “affaire du coeur” is news.

I’ll explain why, but first I’m going to give you all a chance to become a newspaper editor and decide what goes in the paper and what doesn’t.

These are all local examples, selected at random and in no particular order. Most have to do with elected officials or people running for office. There are hundreds more, from the local to the national level (Gen. Petraeus, anyone?), and more arriving daily.

OK, you’re the editor. Would you publish a story about any of these?

• A candidate for mayor whose wife has taken out a restraining order against him.

• A county supervisor’s marriage breaks up, like Gibson’s, but his new lady friend is not a county employee.

• A negotiator representing county management in labor negotiations has an affair with the union negotiator.

Those are all relationship related. Let’s broaden the discussion.

• An elected official is in a dispute with the federal government over taxes.

• An elected official running for re-election uses his office email for political purposes.

• A city council member shows up belligerent and apparently drunk at a Fourth of July event.

Let’s go even further and get into personal behavior.

• A candidate for city council has a history of looking into the backgrounds of his political opponents, calling their employers to complain about them, showing up on their doorsteps unannounced, and leaving intimidating faux lawsuits at their homes.

Now let’s really stretch the boundaries and get into the behavior of prominent nonelected people in the community. Suppose one of them, a household name, a paragon, is involved in a lawsuit or is accused of hanky-panky of one sort or another? Is it news?

How are you doing so far? Do you think that any or all of these behaviors should be in the paper? Let me put it another way: Would you as a voter want to know this about the people who lead or seek to lead your local government, or lead your community?

Or is it nobody’s business but theirs?

Personally, I don’t find these questions easy to answer. Reputations are at stake, and more
importantly, so is privacy. But there is such a thing as the people’s right to know.

These are tough calls, every time. Yet people in my profession make them almost every day. It comes with the territory.

Most of us who do so take the question very seriously. Most of us take pains to get it right. We all have developed standards over time that we believe will lead us to the right decision. We have been at it long enough to know — we hope — when someone is trying to manipulate us into going one way or the other.

As you might imagine, the parameters that responsible news organizations set out for themselves are too long to address in a column. Besides, I don’t speak for The Tribune — as my byline above indicates, I speak solely for myself.

So, circling back to Gibson, I believe his situation is news because the woman with whom he has entered a relationship works for him. He is her boss.

That’s a no-no in the private sector and should be as well with the people we elect to office in the public sector, whether or not the relationship is consensual. Should their romance thaw, the county could be open to litigation from Gibson’s paramour.

There is more to the discussion, nuances and implications. You could argue for example, that public trust can be undermined by private behavior. I’ll leave that discussion for others.

I want to leave the reader with a few thoughts from this column.

First, making a call about whether to go to print with this kind of story is not easy.
Second, the decision is not made lightly.

Finally, those who make these calls are professionals, news veterans, who generally know what they’re doing and have well-thought-out reasons for doing it. You can agree or disagree with the decision, but that part is inarguable, in my view.

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