PRESS UNFAIR TO HART?. Polls show public concern; experts back tough scrutiny

Gary Hart is gone, but the question lingers: Did the press go too far in hounding the top Democrat out of the presidential race? ``Yes,'' say the public and some journalists. ``No,'' say most journalists and a number of scholars.

A battery of weekend polls - by Newsweek, Time, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times - all seemed to give the press a black eye after the stories linking former Senator Hart with a Miami model.

Newsweek's cover story, ``Sex, Politics, and the Press,'' reported that its poll by Gallup found 64 percent of Americans felt the media were unfair in their treatment of Mr. Hart. Some 52 percent of those polled thought the private lives of United States politicians should be off limits to the media.

Time's poll got similar results. The magazine found 67 percent of the public felt it was wrong for the press to write stories about the sexual life of a presidential candidate. Sixty percent felt that his relationship with Miami model Donna Rice had no bearing on Hart's qualifications to be president.

Many politicians felt uncomfortable about the past week's events. Gov. Mario Cuomo (D) of New York suggested that there are ``skeletons in everybody's closet.'' Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. of Delaware, a Democratic candidate for president, said that he would refuse to answer personal questions about adultery like those asked of Hart.

Even some journalists have been tough on the press. A.M. Rosenthal, New York Times columnist and former executive editor, says he would have refused to carry out an assignment that called for snooping outside the home of a presidential candidate.

Yet Hart is gone. And even the co-chairman of his campaign, Charles Manatt, concedes that despite the criticism of the media, Hart brought his problems onto himself. Challenged by NBC News about the question of marital fidelity on May 1, Hart met Miss Rice that very evening at his Washington, D.C., town house.

``That's very reckless,'' suggests Mr. Manatt, who says he watched last week's events unfold first with dismay, then with disgust, then with disbelief.

There is concern that the press now will place all presidential candidates under surveillance, their every move recorded by video cameras.

Members of the press deny this. Among reporters, it is widely agreed that there must be ``probable cause'' before most news organizations would investigate a candidate's personal life. In Hart's case, rumors had circulated for years.

The Miami Herald acted only when it got a telephone tip that was corroborated by other evidence. For example, Hart's official campaign schedule showed him going from Iowa on May 1 to Kentucky on May 2. The Herald sent a reporter to check on Hart only when it learned from its tipster that Hart was not going to Kentucky as the schedule showed but was actually going to his town house in Washington.

Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar who writes on the press, says the Herald's coverage of Hart must be kept in perspective.

``There are appropriate actions by the press given different levels of political office,'' says Mr. Hess. ``We do not need to hold the candidate for water commissioner up to the same kind of scrutiny that we do [a candidate] for president.

``Some of the criticism comes up because of the question, `Would you want your neighbor to get this level of scrutiny?' The answer would be no,'' says Hess. ``But we are talking about very few people, a dozen out of 243 million, who say `I want to be leader of the Free World.' Those people do lose their right of privacy. They are self-anointed.''

Hess concedes that some people got hurt by the Herald story. Mrs. Hart was wounded, as were Hart's children, and some close friends.

``On the other side of the equation, the nation probably learned quite rightly that Gary Hart should not be president,'' Hess says.

Other candidates, such as Gov. Michael Dukakis and US Rep. Richard Gephardt, seem unconcerned by their loss of privacy. Sen. Paul Simon's wife, Jeanne, says: ``I welcome the scrutiny.''

Congressman Gephardt says: ``We climb into a fishbowl, and we have to put up with that.''

Scholar Hess notes that Hart wanted the campaign to be about issues. But both issues and character are important. And he adds:

``If the voters had to choose, they would be better off choosing character.''

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