Media double standards?

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A HOT topic these days in any forum focusing on national issues is Gary Hart and his recent brush with scandal. There is the familiar question of whether Mr. Hart's private life was unfairly invaded by the press. But recently I fielded a new question to a group of businessmen: ``How about the members of the news media? Shouldn't they have to disclose whether or not they have had or are having extramarital relations - particularly those who are hounding the presidential candidates on this subject?''

``Hounding'' is probably the right word. The press pounced on the Rev. Jesse Jackson like a wolf pack the other morning at breakfast, and kept him answering the same question in various forms for another 15 minutes after the session was over. Had he ever committed adultery? That was the question, although they didn't put it that bluntly.

Candidate Jackson patiently took on the barrage of queries. He said that adultery was immoral - but that sexism and racism were even more immoral. If a relationship ever became a matter of ``national interest or national security,'' he said, ``questions about it would constitute a legitimate inquiry. Otherwise such questions are sensational.''

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One reporter asked, ``What if [Jackson] were asked if he had ever committed adultery?'' Mr. Jackson replied, ``I would tell him it is none of his business.''

At the same time, Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste (also a potential presidential candidate) grappled with reports in the Cleveland Plain Dealer and with similar questions about his private life.

Shortly before Jackson's guest appearance at the breakfast, another possible presidential candidate, Sen. Dale Bumpers, sat in with the same group. When asked about the relevance of presidential candidates being questioned about extramarital relationships, Senator Bumpers said that he saw no point in getting into that subject.

The questioning went no further. But even to go that far was evidence that the private lives of candidates have become public issues. Such questions were considered off limits until recently.

But what about members of the press? Should they be able to maintain a double standard - falling back on the First Amendment as a protection against divulging information about their private lives while digging into candidates' personal lives?

Some may respond that reporters aren't running for president.

But it does seem unfair for those in the media who might themselves be engaging in more open sexual relationships to be grilling, and often judging, candidates on the question of extramarital relations.

New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal covered this subject superbly when he asked: ``If the press is increasingly insistent on knowing more and more about the private lives of people in public life, does it not have the ethical obligation to tell more and more about itself?''

Mr. Rosenthal then answered, ``But now the love affairs, drinking habits, and sexual preferences, as we say, not just of Presidential candidates but of all significant officials, are news. Isn't it less logical for journalists to say their private life is their own business? Aren't they often even more influential than many officials whose private conduct is considered relevant to the public?

``No, colleagues, it is not a First Amendment issue. ... Journalists can keep ducking the issue, but not for long. One day soon editors, reporters and publishers will have to decide, paper by paper, if the familiar answers are good enough. Those who think not will face the choice of forgoing some stories about personal matters, or agreeing to make their own lives fully public. It is not a matter of law, but of ethic and that squeaky voice [of conscience].''

Will reporters press this so hard that other issues of national and international import may be given insufficient attention by the candidates? Perhaps. Certainly Jackson was not given much time to talk about the make-or-break issues of the '80s.

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.

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