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Jewish World Review June 13, 2001/ 23 Sivan, 5761

Norah Vincent

Norah Vincent
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'Gotcha!' guidelines


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THERE are at least two circumstances under which journalists have both a right and an obligation to publish details about a public person's private life: first, if the behaviors or events in question are illegal or immoral; and second, if it can be shown that the subject lied publicly about them.

It should go without saying, of course, that anything a journalist writes about any person, public or private, must have a verifiable basis in fact.

Sound obvious, right? Well, a cursory glance through the nation's papers and online news outlets these days might persuade you that few people agree about what's fair game for news and commentary. We tend to favor publishing dirt on members of the other party or on people whose ideas we don't like. But when it comes to our friends, our favorites and ourselves, negative press is all bunk.

Take, for example, gay journalist and sometime pundit Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan, who is HIV positive and has made public on many occasions the details of his battle with the virus, has been accused by another gay journalist, Michelangelo Signorile, of soliciting unprotected sex from other HIV positive men on the Internet. (On his personal Web site, Sullivan has since admitted to doing as much.)

Writing in the May 25 issue of New York's gay publication LGNY, Signorile set out to expose Sullivan as a hypocrite. Sullivan calls himself a liberal. But in the gay ghetto, where anyone to the right of Trotsky is considered reactionary, he's been dubbed a conservative. An out, practicing Catholic, Sullivan has written in passionate support of gay marriage and commitment and has been critical of the gay subculture. Thus in the grand tradition of setting up straw men, Signorile thinks he has unveiled Mr. Goodie Two Shoes as a pervert, when in fact all he's done is sling a little mud at a self-declared enemy.

But Signorile's disclosures have exploded on the Internet, both in gay chat rooms and in e-zines. Let's submit the case to our criteria. Did Sullivan do anything illegal? No.

What's more, he did nothing morally reprehensible, since he both disclosed his own HIV status and sought others who shared it. Unprotected sex is a crime only when the perpetrator has a sexually transmitted disease and does not notify his partner of it. Sullivan did neither. And so, by our first rule, his escapades are emphatically none of our business.

What about lying? There again, Sullivan is innocent. He has been blisteringly candid in print about his sex life, and when confronted with Signorile's accusations— which to anyone would feel unjustifiably intrusive—Sullivan admitted the truth, which is more than we can say for our immediate past president. So much for rule No. 2.

Strangely though, Signorile has chided Sullivan for his judgmental attitude toward President Clinton during the impeachment hearings. But there is a fundamental distinction here that Clinton fans and Sullivan foes, often the same people, conveniently miss. Most people didn't think Clinton should have been impeached because he'd seduced an intern or cheated on his wife or even because he'd lied about it to the media. None of these is an impeachable offense. They thought that Clinton should have been impeached because he broke the law. He committed perjury. It didn't matter what he'd lied about. It was the fact that he'd done it under oath. Average people go to jail for that. Clinton should have, too.

When Clinton lied to the media about Monica Lewinsky, he didn't break the law, but in this case, our second rule applies. Because public and even private citizens should be just as accountable as journalists for the truth of what they say, Clinton's public lie justified subsequent exposure of the facts, however personal. If, however, Clinton had merely said ‘‘no comment'' or if he had made it clear that he would not answer questions about his personal life except under subpoena, then reporters would have had no right to pry. They would have anyway, but we're talking about how journalists should behave, not how they do behave.

Sullivan, like Clinton, has made a lot of enemies. But unlike Clinton, he has done nothing wrong. He has been more forthright than 99.9% of politicians, and he took no oath of office. Thus his private foibles, if they can even be called such, are not ours to address.


JWR contributor Norah Vincent is a New York writer and co-author of The Instant Intellectual: The Quick & Easy Guide to Sounding Smart & Cultured. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2001, Norah Vincent