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From AJR,   November 1998  issue

The Politics of Sex at Salon   


By Lori Robertson
Lori Robertson (robertson.lori@gmail.com), a former AJR managing editor, is a senior contributing writer for the magazine.      

"Aren't we fighting fire with fire, descending to the gutter tactics of those we deplore? Frankly, yes. But ugly times call for ugly tactics."
--"Why we ran the Henry Hyde story," Salon, September 16

That's part of Salon's rationale for what it called the "most difficult editorial decision" in the online magazine's three years of operation. Other journalists call the exposť wrong and irrelevant. No matter, news of an affair the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee had 33 years ago with a married woman is now out there, taking the debate of what's fair game in coverage of public officials to a new level.

Acknowledgments in early September by Reps. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) and Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho) of past indiscretions, prompted by press inquiries, have put journalists under the ethical spotlight. But it was the Hyde account--peddled by Norm Sommer, a friend of Hyde's former mistress' ex-husband--that created a barrage of Republican backlash and journalistic head-shaking.

"In this case, you had a sensation-seeking publication that clearly has a [partisan] viewpoint attempting to smear people who..may damage President Clinton," says Tom Fiedler, political editor at the Miami Herald and a key figure in uncovering Gary Hart's extramarital fling in 1987.

Fiedler--one of the 57 journalists, according to Sommer, who got his pitch and rejected it before Salon said yes--says the story simply is not relevant, as Hyde was not attacking the president and the adulterous episode occurred so long ago. The Herald passed on Sommer's information in late April.

Sommer acted as an agent for the ex-husband, Fred Snodgrass, who told Salon that Hyde's five-year affair with his then-wife Cherie destroyed his family.

James Warren, the Chicago Tribune's Washington bureau chief, received several calls from Sommer in June, at which time he "didn't see it at all relevant." In January, Warren says, Hyde (R-Ill.) had told the Tribune he would not move to impeach Clinton based on a "peccadillo."

But while Warren finds the "we gotta get down in the gutter with these guys" justification "absurd," he doesn't have "any great, great problem" with Salon's decision to run the story.

Finding journalists who see Salon's side isn't easy. Baltimore Sun Washington Bureau Chief Paul West says one of the youngest members of his bureau thought the episode was newsworthy, as Hyde had been cast as a man of great integrity. However, West, who jokes his paper may have been the only one not solicited by Sommer, thinks "a 30-year-old affair is probably not relevant... There has to be a statute of limitations on these things."

The incendiary account wasn't published by Salon without debate. Editor/CEO David Talbot says he, Managing Editor David Weir, Publisher/President Michael O'Donnell, Executive Editor Gary Kamiya and Washington Bureau Chief Jonathan Broder discussed how to proceed. Broder, who has since resigned, was the only one to argue strenuously against publication, says Talbot. Broder heard about and passed on the story in early summer.

Talbot, author of two Salon articles on the Hyde incident, says an apparent contradiction--going with the Hyde story despite Salon's opposition to bringing personal improprieties into public discourse "the way Ken Starr was"--made Salon editors hesitate. Also giving pause was the effort of critics to label the magazine "part of the White House propaganda machinery," Talbot says. While the Web site has run many articles critical of Starr and supportive of Clinton, Talbot has repeatedly discounted the notion that Salon is the American Spectator of the left, pointing to Salon's use of conservative columnists and stories criticizing the president. But running the Hyde story certainly reinforced such beliefs.

Did Salon fear it would be opening the floodgates for unlimited sexual inquiry? "Ultimately," Talbot says, "that was one of the reasons we did decide... The political debate in this country has become so surreal..we wanted to help bring it to the end."

And he feels Salon has helped to do that. "After the initial outrage about Salon's decision..there was some lighthearted commentary..and then a sense that this has gotten way out of hand." Salon, he says, has pointed out that Washington would be empty if politicians were banished for such private wrongs.

But has Salon's decision changed the rules for covering the personal conduct of public officials? Not necessarily.

"The floodgates [were] already open," says Louis Hodges, Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University. "Journalists have apparently abandoned, if they ever held it, the standard that the private life of a public official is relevant only when the private life interferes with performance in office."

While the press is in a quandry over what's appropriate to publish, says New York Times Washington Bureau Chief Michael Oreskes, one thing remains clear: Extensive reportage about the Clinton/Lewinsky affair doesn't mean "everything about every public figure's life is fair game."

Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, says his paper's guideline is not to write about politicians' sex lives unless they become a public concern, as in a sexual harassment suit or allegations of abuse of power. As a result, the paper declined to do a story in midsummer when Sommer offered the tale.

"We're still trying to exercise restraint," McManus says. "What has changed is the number and force of all the parties, from independent counsels to Internet magazines, that are trying to change the rules themselves by pushing material into public view."

There's little doubt that the plethora of media outlets has complicated the situation. The mainstream media, says the Tribune's Warren, "continue to grope with how to deal with [other sources] and what our rightful place should be among them."

Once Salon put the Hyde story in play, most mainstream outlets did pick it up. "Everybody raced to be first to be No. 2," says Salon contributing writer Murray Waas, adding there was "extra hypocrisy in repeating the story in the context of condemning it."

With Hyde's statement maintaining "the statute of limitations has long since passed on my youthful indiscretions" and Republicans pointing the finger at the White House, "the weight was overwhelmingly on the side of running the story," says the Baltimore Sun's West. McManus says had Hyde not issued a statement, "I don't think we would've written a story."

Salon, Talbot says, has been the target of bomb threats, death threats, e-mail bombs and threatened boycotts of its advertisers. Letters to the editor on the Hyde story have been divided.

In the aftermath, Salon must struggle with the lingering impression that it is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Clinton administration. "We're not in one camp or the other; we're on a crusade to tell the truth," Talbot says. "This is a great story to us, number one, and it needed to be told."