Do we or don’t we?

Unfortunately we find ourselves in this position too often. Not just the Missourinet, but news organizations all over the country.

When is the private life of a public figure the business of the public? When is something that happened a long time ago worth reporting on today? A 60-year old public figure tried some marijuana in college. Is that something to report on today? A lot of us did some things in our less disciplined days that we don’t do now, haven’t done in a long time, and sure as heck wouldn’t do today. Should the person we are now be evaluated on the basis of the person we were then?

Do we go with a story if the person in the spotlight refuses to say anything about serious allegations that have come to light about him or her? How long can one news organization sit on a sleezey story that other news organizaitons have reported or repeated and that talk show hosts are discussing?

How much slack should we cut the Anthony Weiners of our political world?

We have our own version of the Weiner story here in Missouri right now. Were it not for the fact that Peter Kinder is the Lt. Governor and has been considered the mostly likely Republican candidate for Governor next year, would his reported visits to a strip club and his apparently unfulfilled desires for a relationship with a stripper who had been featured one month in Penthouse Magazine be worthy of widespread discussion in the media?

If Peter Kinder were a 50-something bachelor air conditioner repairman living somewhere else on your block who liked to spend his off-hours in a strip club and would like one of the ladies to move in with him be somebody to scorn or somebody to dismiss with a shake of the head. “Oh, well, it’s not what I’d do, but hey, what the heck. He’s an old bachelor, after all. He keeps his yard lookingn nice. He doesn’t throw beer bottles into the street. He doesn’t scare the kids on Halloween. He can still fix my air conditioner if it breaks.”

But Peter Kinder is the Lieutenant Governor whose salary is paid by taxpayers, who is supposed to be an advocate for senior citizens, who has taken stands on public moral issues during his political career and expects those stands to help make him Governor. He also has asked many people to give him money for his campaign and has a condo in St. Louis being paid for with campaign funds — to which he reportedly has invited this lady to move in to.  An unflattering photograph of Kinder and the woman has been published and has been circulated nationally.

Serious character issues have been raised and with them comes the question of whether this kind of character is the kind of character Missouri wants in a governor. However, is that Peter Kinder today’s Peter Kinder?

But consider the source. A self-professed lesbian stripper who shared herself with the world via a magazine that is sold in a plastic baggie at many newsstands. She and Kinder had some private lap dancing time a long time ago. She’s a barmaid, for crying out loud. On the other hand — as Kinder says in a statement — “I’m not proud of every place I have been.” And we have seen enough instances of public figures caught in embarrassing situations, seeking relief from public attention by demonizing the accuser to question questions about her credibility. Who are you going to believe? And a necessary question with that is, “Why would I believe one more than the other?” If she were the air conditioner repair person living on your block, would you judge her air conditioning expertise because of what SHE does otherwise?

We called Kinder’s campaign director’s cell phone Wednesday and left a message asking him or Kinder to contact us when they felt it was appropriate or comfortable to do so. We said we preferred not to run the story until we’d heard from them. We are posting this note today because there has been no response from either person to us or to other news organizations other than a statement calling the woman’s accusations “bizarre” and “not true” and intimating that Governor Nixon made up the story. And we do remember Nixon’s first campaign for Attorney General that included the story that his opponent had not been making payments he was supposed to make because of his divorce — which his ex-wife publicly refuted.

So Kinder went to ground somewhere for a couple of days. He’s didn’t comment. . He’didn’t respond to requests for interviews. He knew that the longer he let this stuff circulate the worse it would be for him. He knew that the longer this stuff circulates, the more nasty jokes are going to be made of him and of the circusmtance. He knew the longer this goes, the more his hopes of ever being Governor diminish. He knews the words “Kinder” and “toast” were becoming more closely associated.

Figuring out the right thing to say under these circumstances isn’t easy. Now the evaluations are being made in the press and among the public wheher this statement is responsive to the situation. Kinder cannot expect his statement alone to satisfy many in the press or in the public. He’ll have to appear in public again. He’ll have to face public or press questions that demand a greater explanation than he has offered. History indicates that if he sticks only to his statement, he won’t extinguish the story. How he erases doubts and how he answers the questions that are sure to come could determine his political fuure. It’s not easy to decide on the appropriate strategy when columnists are writing columns, broadcast commentators nationwide are taking note of the story, and some fellow Republicans are reportedly increasingly nervous about the viability of his candidacy.

One report says he might sue the Riverfront Times, the St. Louis newspaper that broke the story. Kinder has a background in newspapers and certainly knows the difficulty of a public figure winning a defamation suit against a newspaper. And a lawsuit is hardly an answer to the questions the articles have raised.

Reporters too often have to ask themselves if a politician’s private behavior affects the person’s ability to perform their public duties. If the answer is clearly, “yes,” there’s no doubt that a story should be run.

The related question is whether this is the kind of person voters want as their governor. That’s where the reporter doesn’t have an answer. But a reporter does have an obligation to give the public the information it needs to give its answer. We think the target of those questions should be given a reasonable chance to respond. Lack of response from the subject of the story does not eliminate the obligation to give voters information for their decision-making.

A lot of things enter into whether a story leads newscasts or is splashed across a front page. Most of the time, we don’t have to make these evaluations and decisions. This is one of those times when a lot of factors make us want to do something because Missouri’s political system is buzzing with the word “Kinder” and we can’t ignore the immediate issue and its later ramifications. But there are so many human considerations in deciding what is the right way to handle a story. And that might be why this story is not getting the biggest headlines in the newspapers and isn’t part of our newscasts (at least not yet). But that also is why the story is on the editorial pages or in the political reporters’ columns or on the Missourinet blog.

But we know from years of covering politics and watching politics be covered that sometimes this kind of thing doesn’t go away. Sometimes these stories grow. Sometimes they reach the point where they cannot be contained.

We’ll see where this one goes.

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2 thoughts on “Do we or don’t we?

  1. Bob – thanks for sharing the behind the scenes nature of this naturally uncomfortable situation our newsrooms are in. You verbalized it better than I could and I appreciate your transparency.

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