Peephole journalism: What are the limits?

Just how private is the closed-door talk of the powerful? And if the unguarded comments of politicians who assume they’re speaking in confidence are captured on tape, is it OK to make those tapes public?

That question came up during the 2012 campaign. GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney told a roomful of Florida donors that 47 percent of their compatriots would never vote Republican because they were, essentially, parasitic layabouts who had been bought off by government stipends.

A recording of his talk to a private gathering was made by a bartender and made public by Mother Jones magazine. It confirmed the image of Romney that the Democrats had been peddling, as an arrogant, aloof plutocrat who looked down his nose at the working class voters his electoral success depended on.

Did that disclosure intrude on the privacy that Romney and his listeners assumed? Unquestionably.

But was that intrusion justified? Did it give voters a unique chance to hear a candidate who, apparently speaking his mind, uncorked a foul brew of contempt and condescension for nearly half of his fellow countrymen?

I thought so, and although I found the privacy invasion regrettable, I was convinced what it revealed, and what might not have been heard otherwise, made the intrusion justified. Mother Jones and reporter David Corn performed a public service.

I’m not so convinced by the most recent controversy that Corn and the magazine have stirred up with secret recordings of another big league politician.

Earlier this month, Mother Jones reported that the Senate minority leader,  Mitch McConnell, had huddled with campaign aides in Louisville, Ky., to plot his  2014 re-election strategy. According to a clandestine video of their Feb. 2 meeting , the politicos were feasting on the candidacy of film star Ashley Judd, who was thinking about running as a Democrat for McConnell’s seat.

The conversation wasn’t kind.  It consisted of generally acid comments on the vulnerabilities the strategists believed Judd would bring to the race: comments she had made about religion and Kentucky’s inferiority to Tennessee, her affection for her adopted hometown of San Francisco, the giddy dislocation she felt when returning from abroad, about parenthood. Much was taken from Judd’s own memoir and from press interviews.

And the discussion included mention of Judd’s history of mental instability, which she’d also described in her memoir.

Judd decided not to run some time later—weeks before Mother Jones published Corn’s account of the February McConnell palaver.

So what did we learn? That people who design campaigns rummage through past utterances of potential adversaries for ammunition against them? That evidence of mental instability is eyed for its possible value in a Senate race—as an argument that a candidate might not be fit for office?

There was no hint here of dirty tricks—that material might be fabricated, that it might be OK to goad Judd into an on-screen breakdown, that people with intimate knowledge of emotional frailty might be improperly induced to humiliate her.

Instead, the strategists had thin soup: “The best hit we have on her is her blatantly endorsing the 2008 Democratic national platform.”

That’s it? The most powerful ammo these geniuses could find would be Judd’s support for the Democratic platform in the year of the Obama sweep, when Democrats won the White House 53-46 and took majorities in both houses of Congress?

Big deal. So what do we have here? We have dumb comments from smart people about a candidacy that didn’t matter.  Who cares?

My point here is simple: When you invade privacy you need a good reason. What the McConnell tapes revealed didn’t justify another blow to the beleaguered conviction that there needs to be a secure, private sphere in which we can express ourselves freely—even foolishly—and trust that nobody outside the room need know.

When you destroy that, you ought to be prepared to defend yourself by brandishing some larger benefit. Poynter Institute ethicist Kelly McBride made much the same point from a different angle: Was the McConnell tape worth the six-month jail term that the reporter might serve for protecting the identity of the person who provided it?  McBride was dubious.

I am too. Moreover, I’m mindful that each of us, if we have smart phones, can record and transmit video with more independence and greater reach than the top-tier broadcasters of a generation ago. We have the power to expose wrongdoing, and we also have the power to hasten the destruction of privacy.

That used to be a dilemma confined to newsrooms. Now it’s everybody’s.


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