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The ethics of digging.

Editor's note: When is a politician's personal life fair game for public dissection? Larry Sabato, in his book "Feeding Frenzy: How Attack Journalism Has Transformed American Politics," has suggested a ten-year statute of limitations on sexual peccadillos and youthful, casual drug experimentation. Nationally-syndicated columnist William Raspberry has put forth the notion of a "Lazy Reporter's Rule" -- if a reporter must dig deep to uncover unsavorty personal conduct, it is prima facie evidence of discretion, and the official should be left alone. Sue O'Brien coverd the privacy issue for The Quill last November. The Quill asked all three to measure the Grunseth case against these cautions. Raspberry asked Jack Tiner, an engineer in Columbia, Maryland, to respond for him. Tiner developed the "Lazy Reporter's Rule" over lunch with Raspberry.

The 1981 nude swim story chronologically approaches the decade-old statute of limitations I have urged for public disclosure of private life foibles. Nonetheless, the seriousness of any morals offense involving minors outweighs this consideration, and I would support publication of the story, providing sufficient proof of the allegations was in evidence. (It is difficult to determine from Mr. Nimmer's account how many corroborating witnesses were available to back up the young women's charges.)

However, I disagree with the decision to publish Tamara Taylor's claim of a relationship with Grunseth. The charge is insufficiently substantiated -- reason enough not to publish -- and even if true, it is of questionable relevance and value. I view this story as a case of excess stemming directly from the modern pre-eminence of the character issue.

I believe the story in the Star Tribune relating to the pool party with the teenage girls goes to the very core of the candidate's integrity and character. The allegations of the two women were serious and credible enough to warrant ignoring the "Lazy Reporter's Rule" and digging into the story. The only obligation of the Star Tribune was to verify the information to the proper degree, and they more than satisfied this requirement.

On the other hand, I think the "Lazy Reporter's Rule" should have prevented publication of the Tamara Taylor allegations. Grunseth was sufficiently discreet in his affair with Taylor, proven by the fact that the reporters had to work to substantiate her allegations -- by coaxing a hotel clerk to unearth a year-old hotel receipt and interviewing the other woman who dined with the couple in Washington. Even with those efforts, Taylor's claims remained somewhat shaky. Had the rule been applied, that story would not have been published.

The only factor working in favor of publication was Grunseth's statement in his interview with Bruce Orwall that his wild days ended with his marriage in 1984. Hypocrisy begs for disclosure, but in this case I still would have squashed the story. The evidence was tenuous, the "crime" involved consenting adults, and Grunseth conducted the affair quietly.

Whether the test comes from Larry Sabato or Jack Tiner, the Grunseth story would seem to flunk -- proving, once again, that rules are made to be broken.

Or bent. The story crowds Sabato's 10-year "statute of limitations" on politicians' private sins, and arguably satisfies Sabato's "manifestly indiscreet" test.

Discretion is also key to Tiner's "Lazy Reporter's Rule": "If you have to do a lot of digging, leave it alone." The need to dig, he reasons, proves the errant official at least has good judgment.

Here, the Star Tribune is in clear violation. But so close to the election, with stories so riddled by he-said/she-said differences, it would be unpardonable not to dig and dig again. Thank heavens for the Star Tribune's quest for confirmation, its effort to shake the complaining witnesses, its refusal to rush to deadline.

The case correctly applauds "good old-fashioned" reporting. I'm not so sure about "good old-fashioned public affairs reporting."

Private affairs, maybe. The only public issue here is character. The real question is whether the story has enough significance beyond itself to warrant invading private life. Before I'd budget it, I'd need some answers: * Are we talking skinny-dipping or something worse? How heinous was Grunseth's behavior? (Mullay told reporters he chased and cornered her, then tried to pull down her bathing suit strap and touch her breast. If true, that's molestation.) * Have we probed Tennessen's political agenda? He's a former opposition party legislator. It is coincidence that two state representatives from Tennessen's party, only the month before, launched the attack on Grunseth's shoddy treatment of his former wife and family? (Were I looking at this from the Pioneer Press side of the Mississippi, I'd roast Tennessen royally for his almost-cynical, and certainly sophisticated, exploitation of journalists' cravings for exclusivity.) * Let's look closely, too, at Taylor's credibility. We need more than the lazy "let the readers decide" rationale that too often excuses publication of under-researched rumors, perhaps more as fishing expeditions than fact. * And who cares about affairs? I don't -- until after Grunseth's gratuitous claims that he's cleaned up his act in his interview with Orwall. Americans are quick to forgive rehabilitated rogues, and Grunseth seeks to capitalize on that dynamic as he ruefully confesses, yeah, he used to do that stuff. But no more -- he over-reaches -- he's seen the light.

And that's the crux. Random adultery may not be my business, but random candor is.

Larry Sabato is a government professor at the University of Virginia.

Sue O'Brien teaches journalism ethics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. O'Brien, who managed Roy Romer's 1986 Colorado gubernatorial campaign, also is a former broadcast and newspaper journalist.
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Title Annotation:Campaign '92; digging politician's personal life
Author:Sabato, Larry; Tiner, Jack; O'Brien, Sue
Publication:The Quill
Date:Mar 1, 1992
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