Sunday, December 21, 2008

Should The NYT Report Rumored Sulzberger-Kennedy Affair? Gawker Says Yes. We Say No.

A post today at Gawker.com, the media gossip website, repeats the rumor it first published several months ago -- that Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. may be romantically involved with Caroline Kennedy -- and argues that it's "a mostly legitimate question to ask."

It isn't.

Today's Gawker post by Alex Pareene reports that the Times City Room blog rebuffed a request from "this guy" who attempted to post the following comment on its website:

Will the Times report on the public gossip that CKS is having an extramarital affair with the publisher of the Times? It's very relevant that someone who wants one of the highest political offices in the state is in a romantic relationship with the publisher of the most influential newspaper in the state. Since Paterson had to answer questions about his marriage, it doesn't seem out of bounds to ask CKS about hers.

The Times blog sent the request back with this response:

please don't repost comments; we don't report stuff like this, regardless of people involved. Paterson called a news conference.

A brusque and too-general answer, but the Times was right not to post the question. Rumors of a romantic relationship between Sulzberger and Kennedy don't fall under the umbrella of the public's right to know.

Pareene concluded his post by saying: "The Times certainly does report on the sexual lives of public figures, all the damn time, from Giuliani to Spitzer to Paterson. But reporting on the Sulzbergers not so much."

What is Pareene talking about? The Times wasn't covering the sex lives of those men; it was covering their public statements, their political activities, or their possible violation of laws.

The Times's coverage of the Spitzer scandal grew out of a criminal investigation related to sex, not the act itself. Paterson raised the matter of his sexual indiscretions on his own; the Times only reported on his statements, it didn't investigate his private life. The Times's interest in Giuliani's personal life only extended to how it affected his political career, or issues of favoritism.

And does Pareene really think it appropriate, or logical, that the Times report on its publisher's sex life? Does Gawker cover Nick Denton's sex life? Come on.

Gawker has been subtly peddling the unsubstantiated Kennedy-Sulzberger rumor since last spring. The smear campaign began with this blind item by Nick Denton on May 21:

Which recently separated newspaper publisher has been seen regularly in the company of a woman from an even more famous dynasty? They're longstanding friends; she's still married; and she's too preoccupied with an illness in the family to think about the future. But that hasn't stopped the speculation. (Okay, so the newly separated newspaper publisher is pretty obvious: the New York Times' moose-loving Arthur Sulzberger. But the identity of his supposed lover is a surprise.)

In June, another Denton item went a bit further, reporting:

As with the supposed relationships of Clinton's husband Bill, recently aired in Vanity Fair, there's no hard evidence to suggest that Sulzberger's friendship with Caroline Kennedy is anything more than that. The two are longstanding family friends, so much so that Caroline Kennedy even spoke at a roast for the moose-loving and often clueless New York Times boss a few years ago. And Caroline Kennedy is married. But Sulzberger's recent separation has prompted Manhattan dinner-party speculation about the woman for whom he left his wife. It would be almost too delicious if these two liberal dynasties, backers of competing candidates during the primaries, were to come together for more than just the toppling of the Republican régime.

In all these items, Gawker has been careful not to categorically accuse the two of having an affair. But it has been equally careful to make sure the notion of it remains firmly planted in our minds, by repeating the rumor the website itself started.

But what Sulzberger and Kennedy do in the privacy of their bedrooms, together or separately, has no bearing on their lives as public figures. The media have no justification for investigating -- or writing about -- the sex life of either one.

In passing, Gawker does touch on a legitimate point. The well-documented friendship between Sulzberger and Kennedy -- a newspaper publisher and a political candidate -- does deserve to be covered in the Times:

Whether or not they're having sexy sexy old rich scion sex, the special friendship between Sulzberger and Kennedy is well-documented. And when the publisher of your paper is BFF with a public figure, asking whether that friendship affects coverage of that public figure is certainly fair game.

Gawker's right. The fact that Kennedy has cultivated a friendship with the Times's publisher is fair game for reporters, and deserves mention in the Times. The Times certainly didn't shy away from reporting, earlier in the week, that Kennedy had helped Rupert Murdoch's child get admitted to Brearley. It's hypocritical for the Times to leave Kennedy's friendship with Sulzberger unreported.

But Gawker demeans itself -- and debases the discussion -- by being the only media outlet to have suggesed a possible extramarital relationship between Kennedy and Sulzberger. (Kennedy's still married; Sulzberger announced a planned divorce from his wife through a brief Times story on May 10, eleven days before the first Gawker item appeared.) Even the National Enquirer, which in July quoted a friend saying her marriage is "pretty much over," didn't go as far as Gawker in raising the possibility of an affair.

Friendship among powerful public figures is fair game for legitimate media outlets. Sexual relationships between consenting adults -- who aren't elected officials betraying the public trust (or breaking the law) by their private behavior -- is fair game only for sleazy gossip websites. The fact of Sulzberger and Kennedy's friendship is our business, but the nature of that friendship is their business.

2 comments:

Independent said...

You MUST be joking, after that tacky article the NYT printed about McCain, for which it is now being sued?

Anonymous said...

Still sticking with your position that it shouldn't be reported?