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From AJR,   March 1999  issue

An umcomfortable Assignment   

Related reading:   Gatekeepers Without Gates

By Alicia C. Shepard
Alicia C. Shepard is a former AJR senior writer and NPR ombudsman.     


BRUCE ALPERT HAD BEEN covering Rep. Bob Livingston, a New Orleans Republican, for about eight years for the Times-Picayune. Much to Alpert's delight, Livingston had reached the summit of the House leadership ladder and was poised to become speaker.
``We were talking about expanding our Washington staff,'' Alpert says. ``Every major story would be ours now. So we would have been working longer hours, but we would have been players in Washington.''
All that changed December 19 when Livingston announced his resignation as his colleagues prepared to vote on impeaching President Clinton. Two days before, after learning that Hustler magazine Publisher Larry Flynt was investigating his sex life, Livingston admitted publicly that he'd been unfaithful several times.
Instead of questioning the speaker-to-be about Social Security or health care, Alpert, 48, found himself delving into Livingston's peccadilloes. Whom had Livingston slept with? How often? Was one paramour a lobbyist, as was rumored? Might there have been a conflict of interest?
``I never envisioned having to write about anyone's personal sex life in detail,'' Alpert says. ``I feel very uncomfortable, a little bit sleazy. I don't enjoy calling people up and asking them whether they had any indiscretions with a member of Congress. I felt awful doing it. It just seems like an invasion of privacy.... It seems to me the personal lives of public officials is a dangerous area to go into. Where do you stop? Back to college? High school days?''
The low point came that Saturday night, hours after Livingston had stunned Congress with his resignation. Alpert had spent six hours hanging around Livingston's office during the day but had not gotten to talk to him. The Times-Picayune is the biggest paper in Livingston's district; Alpert had to talk to him. At 11:30 p.m., after learning the Los Angeles Times had interviewed him, Alpert dialed Livingston's home phone.
``I called and got the answering machine,'' Alpert says. ``I gave this long, rambling message. He was asleep, but he picked up. It was a little difficult. He said, `OK, let's get it over with.' ''
After they finished, the journalist asked the congressman to pass the phone over to Bonnie Livingston. ``It was awkward for me,'' Alpert says. ``I wouldn't want to answer questions about my personal life, especially something I'm ashamed about. As horrible as we are as journalists, we have to put ourselves in the position of the people we cover. When you go into journalism and catch someone with their hand in the cookie jar, you want to do that story. Obviously, you are providing a public service. But this is much murkier.''