An extraordinary minirebellion erupted in two Los Angeles newsrooms recently. At the Valley's Daily News and the L.A. Weekly, reporters refused to pursue a story that senior editors at both papers very much wanted.
Insubordination is potential grounds for dismissal, so this refusal required chutzpah. But it's not obvious that the editors were wrong and the intrepid reporters right.
The tip/rumor/innuendo in question involves personal information, as yet unconfirmed and unpublished, about a member of Mayor James Hahn's family. Faced with resistance from reporters, management at the Daily News has since dropped the subject. The L.A. Weekly's editor, apparently, still wants the story. Editors at the Los Angeles Times, for its part, elected to let the matter lie; no reporters' rebellion was required.
In this column, I, too, will not disclose personal information about the Hahn family. But that doesn't necessarily argue for my virtue. My wife, for one, objected to this article in any form. Alluding to personal, private information -- gossip if you will -- is no better than blurting it out, she insists, because it keeps the matter alive and dangling. Her views line up compatibly with the Torah, the Talmud and the writings of latter-day rabbis. All of these texts warn about lashon hara (gossip), carefully making distinctions between types of gossip, but generally condemning them all.
My wife adds that it's elitist and condescending to obliquely reference something that journalists and politicos are whispering about, when I have no intention of actually informing the reader.
Her last point is awfully close to why Ron Kaye, managing editor of the Daily News, wanted his reporters to chase this lead.
"What's so taboo about it?" Kaye said in an interview. "What makes us privileged and the public not? I don't really understand why -- other than it's elitism and it goes to the timid culture of Los Angeles."
This personal information, if published, would be captivating enough to get attention, but it pertains to nothing illegal, immoral or unethical. So is it automatically off limits?
Not in Kaye's view: "If you're going to step on the stage, you risk being totally exposed or revealed. I think the public should know fully the story of who Hahn is. And what his life is like and what happened to it. I think we have a right to know. Why do we talk about the personal lives of presidential candidates? It's not because it's the most important thing. We're interested, and it becomes a form of symbolic language. When you step into the role of mayor in the media and glamour capital, you become part of the conversation."
If Los Angeles worked like New York City, competitive pressures already would have flushed out any gossip involving the mayor. The tabloids might begin it, but the august New York Times would invariably respond with the "responsible" version. When it comes to celebrities, say Kobe Bryant or Michael Jackson, people are so conditioned to invasiveness that the publishing of revelations is hardly questioned. But why is it in Los Angeles that the personal life of actor Robert Blake looms more newsworthy than the mayor's? Is it a reflection of Los Angeles' civic culture that the mayor barely seems to qualify as a public figure?
In a Los Angeles Times guest column, blogger Mickey Kaus defended the fun of gossip, but also asserted that tattling on public officials would make more people pay attention to -- and care about -- what actually happens in official Los Angeles.
Kaye sees a connection between the handling of this story and the local media's frequent unwillingness to pursue other, weightier grist.
"I've worked in journalism in this town for 25 years," he said, "and the No. 1 issue has always been motivating staff to go full-bore, with the understanding that everything done by government is my public right to know. We need to confront public agencies and tell them that they have no right to any secret. It's not as bad as 25 years ago, but it's still bad."
It's a stretch to equate details about a politician's personal life with the push for open, accountable government. But there are exceptions. In the early 1960s, no one reported on the philandering of President John F. Kennedy, as per the customs of the day. Yet, historians have since learned that one Kennedy mistress had connections to the mob, which could have -- and may have -- compromised JFK as president. Nor did anyone look into Kennedy's serious health problems, which contrasted sharply with a projected youthful vigor so quintessential to his image.
If newshounds had bothered to examine Kennedy's private life, they would indeed have found something newsworthy.
These conundrums plunge inevitably into situational ethics. It probably was nobody's business that Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) paid for his wife's abortion -- except perhaps until he equated abortion with murder on the floor of Congress. Nor did the long-ago affair of Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) seem worth exposing years later -- until perhaps the moment Hyde thundered that President Bill Clinton deserved to be impeached for lying about an affair.
When it comes to Hahn's family life, the case for disclosure rests on shakier ethical footing, especially when looking through the prism of Judaism. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin dealt with such topics in his writings, and I do his work injustice to reference it so briefly and incompletely. But his citations include Leviticus, which prohibits being a "talebearer." This stricture applies even to telling truthful tales. The Talmud goes so far as to warn against speaking well of a friend, "for although you will start with good traits, the discussion might turn to his bad traits."
So well-behaved rabbis would keep their mouths shut -- and forbid their children from majoring in journalism. But what about us scribes? I lean toward a difficult middle path, splitting the baby if you will, though unlike King Solomon, I'd be prepared to follow through.
That is, when it comes to a public official, it usually makes sense to investigate gossip or rumor. The Los Angeles Times called it right by probing the sexual-harassment rumors surrounding then-candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger. If you don't investigate, you never know when there's something that you should know -- something that you ought to report. Critics lashed the Times for landing its Schwarzenegger stories closely in advance of the recall election. But the alternative of not publishing news of credible, multiple sexual-harassment allegations would have been irresponsible.
If newsmongers did choose to invest scarce resources in pursuit of the Hahn-related tidbit, and then confirmed the scuttlebutt, it would be contrary to their temperament to stay silent. Yet, in rare cases, when journalists check out rumors, they should be prepared to take their findings and shove them under the mattress. I say rare, because false rumors themselves can be newsworthy and fair game -- and they can be dealt with sensitively, even if it undermines titillation.
Maybe the Los Angeles Times checked out the Hahn thing and let it go. Maybe it didn't bother to check at all -- which would be less defensible. Assistant City Editor John Hoeffel said he couldn't share information about what stories his paper is or isn't pursuing. He added: "In deciding whether to write a story about the mayor or the mayor's family, we would weigh whether it affected his job as a public official. It would depend on whether the gossip is just colorful details about the mayor or a private matter. If we felt something was information that was important for the public to know about, we would write it."
Editors at the L.A. Weekly did not reply to a request for an interview.
There's another section of the Leviticus sanction against gossip. It states, "Neither shall thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor." Jewish Week editor Gary Rosenblatt, in his column, has taken this admonition to mean that ethical journalism, which keeps its civic mission front and center, might pass the rabbis' scrutiny after all.
Kaye of the Daily News said he could've found some reporter ambitious enough to do the deed. But he relied on the discretion of the veteran journalists he trusted most, such as Beth Barrett and Rick Orlov.
"If my best reporters, whom I respect deeply, won't do it, it's probably the wrong thing to do," he said. "Nothing ever moved in the story. It didn't become a public event. Nobody else touched the story and made you have to respond. It was an extremely close call. And I don't know that, collectively, we as journalists did the right thing."