Media Muckraking Gets Mixed Reviews
NBC-TV's report on Senator Robb latest investigative `expose'
WASHINGTON — ADD Charles Robb to the list of prominent public figures - including Nancy Reagan, White House chief of staff John Sununu, and United States Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts - who have recently seen their names connected to embarrassing news reports. US Senator Robb, a Virginia Democrat, was the subject last Sunday night of NBC-TV's ``Expos'e'' program. It was claimed that while he was governor of Virginia, Robb frequented parties where cocaine was used and that he engaged in an extramarital affair. The NBC report also indicated that recently a senior member of his Senate staff tried to intimidate persons who might reveal the senator's previous activities.
Robb strongly denied the charges, though he conceded: ``I've acknowledged my minor peccadilloes, my minor indiscretions.''
He contends that NBC's motive was to ``get Robb,'' who has been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate.
Recent news reports about Robb and others have intensified criticism that mainstream news organizations, such as NBC and the New York Times, are resorting to ``tabloid journalism'' of the worst sort.
Thomas Mann, director of governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, laments the conduct of some news organizations, especially NBC. The network was also the first major media source to reveal the name of a possible rape victim at the Kennedy compound in Palm Beach, Fla. The man under investigation in the case is a nephew of Senator Kennedy.
NBC's performance in the Kennedy and Robb cases ``reeks to high heaven,'' Dr. Mann says. The network's report on Robb was ``pretty tawdry'' and ``pretty pathetic,'' he says. ``I think NBC ought to be ashamed of themselves.''
NBC spent five months researching the Robb story, but Mann says: ``What I am struck by is how much they put into it, and how little they came up with.''
Could be damaging
Nevertheless, Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, says the NBC report could have a significant impact on the Robb's political career, especially if he hopes to occupy the White House. ``I think this will seriously damage his prospects of getting on the national ticket in the future,'' Dr. Sabato says. But he isn't sure it will permanently affect Robb's political influence in Virginia.
``He will go through a difficult patch,'' Sabato says. ``He'll get criticism. But the state GOP is in such disarray that they may not be able to exploit this. ... It will take a good candidate to beat him.''
Suzanne Garment, a communications scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is writing a book about the increase in expos'e-style stories involving politicians since Watergate.
Ms. Garment's research for her book - which she says will be titled ``Scandal: the Culture of Mistrust in American Politics'' - now includes more than 400 political figures who have seen their private lives revealed.
Garment, like Mann, feels that the media spotlight on private indiscretions is undercutting the nation's confidence in its government. ``You see a rise in cynicism and alienation that I think has got to be connected, at least in part, to the nature of the news,'' she says.
She says that the threat of expos'e journalism is keeping good people out of government service.
``Anyone who looks into this hears people like business executives who say they wouldn't dream'' of joining the government, she says. ``Partly it's because of the money. But also the `front page of the Washington Post factor.'
``They really get scared, for they are afraid that it could happen to them, especially to the best of them who are self-critical.''
Garment also says she believes that the potential for exposure stifles honest communication within the government and reduces creativity.
``People don't write anything down any more. ... They don't say what they think about anything or anybody, and you can guess what that does to the decisionmaking process,'' she says.
Privacy invasion hit
Mann laments the invasion of privacy of prominent people. ``Where is the line between the public official having some right to privacy, and where excessive behavior calls into question one's fitness for private life?'' he asks. ``I don't think we have the right to smoke out and publicize the private consensual sexual behavior of public officials. That's just not right.''
Like Garment, Mann worries that this reporting ``ruins our politics. It is so distressing to knock people down. ... We have gone way, way overboard in our focus on scandal.''
Mann says he saw very little that was new in the NBC report and was surprised by all the network ``hype'' about the story.
However, Sabato found some parts of the NBC report about Robb disturbing. Tai Collins, a former Miss Virginia-USA who says she had an affair with Robb, was wired for sound by NBC while she spoke with a member of Robb's staff. In a nearly inaudible recording, the official apparently spoke of using the Internal Revenue Service to halt rumors about the senator.
Ms. Collins told NBC she was eventually threatened by unknown persons who warned her they would ``slit your throat.''
Robb says much of Collins's story about him, including their alleged affair, is ``absolutely, categorically untrue.'' He concedes that his behavior was ``inappropriate for a happily married man,'' but says that no adultery was involved.