Despite its lack of judgment, the Tribune had a solid legal case. After the fierce public reaction against the paper?s humiliation of Ryan, the Trib ran an editorial pointing out that in just about every U.S. jurisdiction, divorce records ?are wide open to scrutiny by anyone -- friends, neighbors, reporters. You cannot have them closed to scrutiny.? But the Trib?s behavior was awful -- mounting a big legal effort that knocked Ryan out of contention over a rejected sex fantasy and breaking the story under a splashy front-page headline, ?Ryan File a Bombshell.? The clincher is that both Ryan and his ex-wife wanted to keep the divorce records private, a request the Tribune should have respected. The gap between what the Trib did and what the sleazy tabloids do all the time is not a large one.
When should the news media pursue and reveal sexual details about politicians? How about this? Almost never. It?s probably best to stick mainly to cases involving serious claims of victimization (turn reporters loose on Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bill Clinton). Unfortunately, reporters find it hard to let go of the hypocrisy excuse for invading privacy -- if a pol has ever come out in favor of marital fidelity, he is fair game for sexual reporting. But this can?t be a good idea. It puts ?anything goes? philanderers off limits and targets only the backers of traditional moral values. The hypocrisy excuse was a low hum in the background of the Jack Ryan case. One of the Tribune?s legal briefs identified him as a ?family values? candidate (the evidence for this perilous status did not turn up in my computer search), so apparently it was somehow ok to go gunning for him.
Not drawing lines between what is public and what is properly private has the obvious effect of keeping more and more first-rate people out of politics. In the Ryan case, the court decided that the unsealing of the candidate?s divorce records was important because of the ?higher level of [public] interest? in Ryan triggered by his decision to run for the Senate. In plain English, this amounts to a warning: If you want to avoid an especially high level of sexual scrutiny, stay out of politics. Does anyone really think this kind of norm will improve our political culture?