Published August 01, 2008
Does anyone care if a former United States senator and presidential candidate ducked into a Beverly Hills hotel two weeks ago for a furtive meeting with his (alleged) mistress and his (alleged) love child?
But does that make it news?
That is a question that the mainstream media, as it is called, has been struggling with since the National Enquirer first broke the story of the men’s room standoff at the Beverly Hilton, as the former senator tried to leave the hotel unobserved (no such luck) at 2:30 in the morning.
It’s all over the internet. The late night comics have been having a field day; my favorite, I have to admit, was Jay Leno’s line that if the senator wanted to escape press attention, he should’ve arranged the meet-up for the hotel where John McCain was staying, since then he could be assured that there would be no press there. Killing two birds with one stone, as it were, is the mark of a good joke.
In recent days, as news has emerged that the child’s birth certificate left the father’s name blank, the local media in the senator’s home state -- both television and print – have got into the action, running pictures of the videographer who the then-candidate referred to as “camera girl” that are at least more flattering than the ones the Enquirer has put out, and went part way to answering the “taste” issue that had so many people shaking their heads when the story first broke.
Should a politician’s personal life be off-limits to public scrutiny?
It feels like only yesterday that I was spending half my time arguing just that, as Republicans sought to make President Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky into an impeachable offense. It wasn’t the sex, they argued, but the lying. I never bought that. It was the sex. Yes, she was an intern. On the other hand, she didn’t get pregnant and have a child. On the other hand, he didn’t have one of his aides come forward and say he was the guy who had the affair: in this case, the fall guy, if that’s what he was, was a younger former associate who was and is married with children, and supposedly invited the woman and child to his home for dinner with his wife and children after publicly taking responsibility for the pregnancy, all of which understandably contributed to people wondering if all of them knew something we didn’t. Like the truth.
Setting up a fall guy to protect the big shot, if that’s what it was (and that’s certainly how it looks), understandably bothers a lot of people. It’s one thing to mess up; it’s one thing to say, truthfully, that the details are not any of our business and simply to refuse to answer questions. If he can live with that, and his wife and kids can live with that, and the other woman can live with that, we should live with that. But setting up some other guy, especially a guy who is married and has a family of his own, to take responsibility sort of stinks.
Besides, if he really was the father, as he announced publicly, why not put his name on the birth certificate? And why hasn’t he come forward in the last two weeks since the Enquirer broke the latest story? One of my friends, who is himself in the news business, says he’s been trying, without success, to find the guy for the last two weeks. I don’t blame the putative father for disappearing, but, coupled with the empty space on the birth certificate, it certainly doesn’t look good for the senator.
But what bothers me most, I have to admit, about this whole affair, if that’s indeed what it was, is the cruelty it seems to evince toward the politician’s wife. She’s sick. Really sick. I can’t imagine what she must be going through now. Or rather, I can imagine, and it is upsetting, especially when I think of her trying to protect their two young children and their twenty-something daughter from the publicity and the gossip.
The question is whether that’s a reason to run the story, or not to; whether the family’s pain is a reason to talk about it, because of what it says about him, or not talk about it,because it will add to their pain.
In the short run, the fact that it was the National Enquirer that broke the story last year of the woman’s pregnancy and followed up with the Beverly Hilton encounter gave both the politician and the rest of the press a way to avoid it. He said he wasn’t going to respond to tabloid trash. The rest of the media was suspect of the Enquirer, and reluctant to rely on their employees as the basis for their own stories. But the Enquirer is not what it used to be; yes, it occasionally runs stories of aliens and three-headed monsters, or their equivalent,but the line between tabloids and “real” newspapers, between gossip and news, between the legitimate media and trash in print, is not what it used to be.
Other news organizations may not be willing to credit the Enquirer, but they can’t ignore it entirely; the middle ground, which is to send your own reporters to track down the story, is likely to end up posing even more starkly the question of “what’s news?” precisely because it cannot be answered by simply asserting that if it’s only in the Enquirer, it isn’t.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first female president of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published "Soulless," "The Case for Hillary Clinton," "How to Get Into Law School," "Sex & Power," "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women."
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the "Blue Streak" column for FOXNews.com.