Opinion Columns & Blogs

What’s fit to print, and what isn’t?

T­he comment came after one of our online election stories, and it hinted darkly that The Tribune was covering up something, protecting a candidate.

“Brown will lose, and I’m sure most people know why. We just can’t talk about it ”

The Brown in question, I am fairly certain, is Paul Brown, who conceded a close race for mayor of San Luis Obispo to Jan Marx on Saturday evening. The “most people know” line is likely the restraining order Brown’s wife took out against him in 2007.

I can’t be completely sure that this is the allusion because the online poster did not sign his or her name, as is the practice with those who don’t have the spine to take responsibility for their comments.

But never mind that; I’ve already written the column about online gutlessness. This piece is about what the media should report about political candidates and what they should not report.

Do voters have the right to learn, through their media, about a candidate’s marital problems? Is that information relevant? How does the press decide “what to leave in, what to leave out,” as Bob Seger would put it?

In October 2007, Brown’s wife sought and obtained a restraining order against the former city councilman. A Superior Court commissioner lifted it in May 2009.

In the 19 months in between, there was a lot of “he said, she said” surrounding Brown and his wife, who were in divorce proceedings. He vigorously denied physically abusing her, and no criminal case was brought.

The Tribune reported all of that at the time, but it created nary a ripple during the Marx-Brown campaign. Marx and other mayoral candidates did not bring it up, and neither did we.

Should we have?

I’m going to give you my answer, as a veteran news professional. But I also want to make it clear that this is not an easy question to answer. It is important to know that different news people can and do come to different conclusions on questions like this, and that they discuss it in great detail.

I personally would have alluded to Brown’s domestic troubles, in both our news coverage and on our editorial pages. I say that because the allegations are serious, and people voting for a mayor need to know the person about whom they are making a decision.

However, I also would have made sure that whatever I wrote had context. “Brown’s wife alleged certain things, he denied them, a commissioner issued a restraining order, then he lifted it, there were no charges filed.”

The idea is to let the readers digest all that, and allow them to decide whether it is important. It is their call, not ours.

However, truth in advertising here, I am more prone than most newsmen to putting all the information possible out there, so long as we provide context, are not libeling someone, and have documentation and attribution for the things we are writing.

Others in the news profession are more prim, or cautious, and take the equally legitimate view that a public person’s private life is just that — private.

These questions come up frequently and not just on the national level where, to cite the most notorious example, President Bill Clinton’s randiness crippled his presidency.

In the end, I believe, we have to trust the readers or in this case, the voters. Let them decide.

It always surprises me when they do not react the way you think they will or are inconsistent.

For example, when then New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer was caught philandering, he was quickly out of office. Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, who cheated on his wife, is still a United States senator. Go figure.

Had San Luis Obispo been reminded about Brown’s problems in his private life, they may very well have decided that it is his own business. Or, they may have held it against him. Or, they may have disbelieved his ex-wife. Or, or, or .

All of those reactions are their prerogative. I believe our job is to give them the information that helps them to make those calls.

What do you think? Where would you draw the line?

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