The tragic suicide of Admiral Jeremy "Mike" Boorda raises fundamental questions about what critics consider the media's self-appointed role as the nation's morality police.
It also reveals a deep divide between the public's understanding of the media's role and responsibilities, and the industry's perception.
While most journalists believe they are simply fulfilling their democratic duties by burrowing into the personal lives of the nation's leaders, much of the public sees a cynical, arrogant, adversarial elite with misplaced priorities.
A 1995 survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press found that fully two-thirds of Americans think the media is "too focused on misdeeds and failures."
"I think they just get into too much of an attack mode," says Angela Deihl, a Manhattan resident. "It's ridiculous."
Last Thursday, Admiral Boorda was scheduled to meet with Newsweek's Washington bureau chief to discuss allegations that the chief of naval operations wore two combat insignia to which he was not entitled. Shortly before the interview, the admiral went to his home and fatally shot himself in the chest.
Boorda, a high school dropout who lied about his age to enlist, was venerated by the rank and file as a no-nonsense "sailor's sailor." He was also highly regarded by the Washington establishment for his handling of the sexual harassment and cheating scandals that have plagued the Navy in recent years.
In one of two suicide notes, which has not been released publicly, Pentagon sources say Boorda expressed fear that "an honest mistake" would be distorted and sensationalized by the media, which would, in turn, bring more shame on the Navy's tattered reputation. Several top Pentagon officials have said since the incident that it was appropriate for Boorda to wear the medals.
Nonetheless, with few exceptions, most of the reporters, editors, and media analysts interviewed for this article believe that Newsweek was following a legitimate line of inquiry about the medals and that Boorda's fears were exaggerated. "Of course, it's a legitimate story; there's evidence the top admiral was wearing medals he hasn't earned," says Stephen Hess, a Brookings Institution scholar who has written extensively on the media.
Many journalists, like the Miami Herald's political editor Mike Fiedler, point out that Newsweek had only begun the reporting process and was handling the questions appropriately. "They had just sought the opportunity to sit down and talk with him about it, without even making the decision as to whether they were going to publish it or not," says Mr. Fiedler. "It seems to me the setting was discreet; it's not like they were going to shout it out in a public setting so just the question itself is demeaning or embarrassing."
But a few reporters did question whether Newsweek had its priorities in the right place. "I think for a general-interest news magazine the question ought to be what are the Admiral's policies on sex discrimination, or weapons procurement," says veteran journalist Richard Parker, now a senior fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy. "If this was an issue, it was one best handled within the Pentagon's culture itself."
Many members of the public, interviewed at random, felt strongly the media's focus was misdirected. Many politicians share the perception. Former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, whose presidential bid was stopped short by media inquiries into his personal life, says Boorda's fears were valid.
"He started with the valid assumption that this was not going to be just another story, this was going to be a career-ender," says Senator Hart. "The question is, why should he immediately assume it will be sensationalized?"
Hart, who has declined until now to talk about the media, says the hostile "gotcha" culture is damaging to the nation because it prevents qualified people from seeking leadership positions. "It's not any individual senator, or candidate, or admiral," says Hart. "Although these are tragic stories, it's the overall impact on the quality of leadership in America. I think any fair, objective analysis must say its negative."
But many journalists and media analysts defend the practice of examining and exposing problems in public figures' personal lives. They also contend the public was not necessarily served during the first half of the century when reporters knew about certain politicians' transgressions but declined to report them.
Mr. Hess admits President John Kennedy's "womanizing," which was not reported at the time, probably did not have any effect on his ability to lead.
But other indiscretions of public officials, such as drinking problems, have, Hess says. "Maybe we have to sort out what does and what doesn't [affect their ability to lead.]"
Other journalists also insist that fairness does eventually prevail in the press. "I think by and large, you do get a fair hearing in our society," says Paul Taylor, a former journalist who's now working to reform the media to bring about a healthier political dialogue in the country. "Sometimes it gets a little rugged for a little while but the truth will get out, things do get put into perspective, in scandal after scandal, episode after episode."