Kyle Whitmire, of al.com, made the revelation in an article titled "When is it OK to out a public official or expose a politician's infidelity?" It came in the wake of reports that State Rep. Patricia Todd (D-Birmingham) threatened to expose affairs of any state officials who spoke against marriage equality for gays, especially on "family values" grounds.
Todd's statement came after a federal judge in Mobile struck down Alabama's same-sex marriage ban as unconstitutional. That sparked negative reactions from a number of the state's conservative politicians, including House Speaker Mike Hubbard and Attorney General Luther Strange. Todd fired back in an emotional statement on her Facebook page, stating in part:
I will not stand by and allow legislators to talk about 'family values' when they have affairs, and I know of many who are and have. I will call our elected officials who want to hide in the closet OUT.
Whitmire entered the fray by essentially asking his readers, "When is it OK to report on a public official's personal failings?"
The answer to Whitmire's question, in my view, is, "Always--if you can verify that you have solid information." I have a degree in journalism and more than 35 years of professional experience in the field, and I was dumbfounded that a reporter would feel the need to ask such a question. I was even more dumbfounded when Whitmire revealed that he had received information about a public official's extramarital shenanigans prior to last year's state elections--and chose to report nothing on it. From the Whitmire article:
During the most recent state elections last year, like a lot of other state political reporters, I got leaked some court documents. Those documents, which have since been sealed, included sworn testimony regarding an extramarital relationship that involved a public official.
Whitmire admitted that the information was about as solid as it gets:
That isn't just gossip. That isn't seeing a frumpy old lawmaker having a candlelit dinner with an attractive lobbyist to whom he (or she) is not married. There wasn't any is-they-or-ain't-they. That's as close as it comes to, as we say, having the story cold.
So what did Whitmire do?
I stuck it away because, quite frankly, I didn't know where the line was. I'm still not sure.
Has the mainstream press really become that timid and weak? No wonder the newspaper industry is crashing as Americans increasingly turn to nontraditional sources for news.
If Kyle Whitmire needs to know where "the line" is, I will be happy to address that issue. Adultery, by any definition, involves unethical conduct. Most public officials take some sort of oath to serve in an ethical fashion--and most of them know that opens up their personal lives to scrutiny. Many of them also tout their families and so-called "moral values" in efforts to get elected.
Recent history teaches us that politicians should know that personal actions can have professional repercussions. Just ask Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, George H.W. Bush and others who have had apparent extramarital affairs exposed in the press.
When an individual pledges to act in an ethical manner, takes taxpayer dollars to perform a public duty, and then is found to be acting in an unethical manner that could impact his official performance . . . that is news. And reporting news is at the heart of journalism.
Is it easy to report on such stories? No, it isn't--and I know from personal experience. I had been a journalist for 35 years without being sued until I wrote a pair of stories about alleged extramarital affairs involving public figures/officials in Alabama. I was sued twice for defamation, with the cases apparently coordinated among political allies.
(Note: I started this blog in June 2007 and had never broken a sex-related story until January 2013. Certain reporters have stated that I frequently take on "salacious" subjects, and the record shows that is not true. Such stories apparently are outside Kyle Whitmire's comfort zone, and the same holds true for me. But reporting sometimes requires us to go outside our comfort zones, especially when matters of hypocrisy are at hand--when private acts don't square with public statements.)
As has been widely reported, I was arrested in one of the cases, allegedly for violating a preliminary injunction--even though more than 200 years of First Amendment law says a preliminary injunction in a defamation case is an unconstitutional prior restraint. I became the only American journalist to be incarcerated in 2013, and I'm the only U.S. journalist in this century to be jailed over a purely civil matter. In fact, the reporting in question for that case never was found to be defamatory at trial, because there was no trial--again, in violation of black-letter law. I remain under a "permanent injunction" that is not supported by an law.
After spending five months in the Shelby County Jail--I don't think I previously had even a speeding ticket on my record--I know about the dangers of taking on difficult stories.
Did Kyle Whitmire fail to act on his story because he was afraid of being sued? I don't know, but he let his readers down. They had a right to know information, in public documents, about a public official who apparently was playing fast and loose with their trust.