The Mindless Right, Part 2

Never underestimate the media’s ability to develop not only a taste for the latest variety of information excrement, but also an argument that it’s really caviar.

No sooner had Ethics Scoreboard deplored the press’s insistence that the public had a right to have divorce records posted on the internet than California Superior Court Judge Robert Schnider ruled that the records of Illinois Senate candidate Jack Ryan’s divorce from actress Jeri Ryan ( who spiced the dreams of millions of geeks during her stint as the impossibly proportioned “7 of 12” on “Star Trek Voyager”) be unsealed and given to the press. The Chicago Tribune had petitioned the court to release the papers, which certainly had juicy material: it recounted the actress’s complaints that the family values promoting Ryan had repeatedly attempted to pressure her into group sex. But both ex-spouses opposed making their dirty linen public, and The Tribune’s argument that “the public has a right” to such intimate and embarrassing information was just self-serving, self-deceiving cover for the real right the paper wanted to assert: the right to sell lots of papers by printing shocking stories about public figures. It is unethical for the Tribune to use the mantle of public service to trump up a fishing expedition in the Ryans’ court documents, and absent anything that relates to the Senate candidate’s public activities, it is unethical for the paper to publish what it finds there essentially to satisfy public voyeurism.

This is not, repeat not, analogous to the Clinton case. President Clinton’s sexual activities occurred while he was president; it involved on the job conduct with a government employee; it involved evidence of a crime (perjury), and cover-up activities using government staff. It could not by any reasonable standard be called “private,” not that this stops Lanny Davis et al. from calling it that every day, if only to his bathroom mirror.

The judge wrote of the Ryans that “They were aware they were in a public court system and protection from embarrassment cannot be a basis for keeping from the public what’s put in public courts. The openness of court files must be maintained, so that the public … can be assured that there is no favoritism shown to the rich and powerful.” Of course, no one seeks to put the domestic tribulations of those who are not rich and powerful on the evening news. Judge Snider disingenuously uses the language of equality to justify manifestly unequal treatment. Nothing stops the press from attending divorce proceedings at the time court proceedings take place. But if the facts of the divorce aren’t news then, the press shouldn’t be able to turn them into news later when the participants have become famous, unless there is a credible showing that something of legitimate public importance and concern is likely to be uncovered. Disagreements over sexual comportment do not qualify, and legitimate public concern and frivolous public titillation are two different things.

But not to the Chicago Tribune. Smelling blood, and using its ownership of a Boston TV station as the link, it is considering another action in Massachusetts to get a look at John Kerry’s 1988 divorce from his first wife, Julia Stimson Thorne. It too is reputed to have its juicy elements, as hinted at by Kerry’s ex in her book, 1996 “Change of Heart.’

This is wrong, out of bounds, unfair, needlessly intrusive and an example of inflicting harm on others for no good purpose. Are some voters really going to decide the issue of Kerry’s fitness to be president based on his conduct during his divorce? If so, they are unfortunate aberrations that should not serve as the basis for public policy. The California judge was wrong, and the Tribune is worse than wrong. It is unethical, and it is despicable.

Previous Commentary: The Mindless Right

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