In September 1999, as the race to succeed President Bill Clinton was heating up and rumors were swirling about Republican candidate George W. Bush's past indulgences, the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed that probably seemed quaint even in its day. The piece by a pair of law-school academics, Steven Lubet and Steven A. Drizin, recounted how the Democratic Party nominee for president in 1952, Adlai E. Stevenson, defused a potentially explosive secret buried in his past by leveling with the reporter who dug it up.
The journalist, Time magazine's William Glasgow, discovered that a 12-year-old Stevenson had shot and killed a friend at a Christmas party--an event that had gone unreported since it had happened 40 years previously. An inquest had determined that the shooting was accidental; nevertheless, Glasgow confronted Stevenson about it as he was preparing a cover story on the candidate for the magazine.
Here's what happened, according to Lubet and Drizin: "There was never a doubt as to how the candidate would respond. His father and grandfather both had been elected to high office, and he would follow their examples of honesty and probity. 'You know,' he said to the reporter, 'you are the first person who has ever asked me about that ... and this is the first time I have ever spoken of it to anyone.' Then he proceeded to explain all of the details in a quiet matter-of-fact way."
This kind of candor is, shall we say, uncommon on the campaign trail these days, given the current crop of carefully coached, always-on-message pols. But what happened next seems even more impossible by today's standards.
Glasgow didn't write about the shooting.
This might strike you as horrifying. Even if you think the shooting reveals nothing about Stevenson, you may recoil from the idea of a journalist keeping secrets instead of revealing them and letting readers judge their worth. (Conservatives might also argue that it was just another example of the liberal media covering for a Democratic candidate. If so, it didn't help Stevenson--he lost overwhelmingly to Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952, then lost to him again in 1956.)
In those days, there were fewer news outlets and less competition for scoops. So reporters could exercise more discretion not just about which stories to do first, but which ones to write at all. Glasgow considered the tragedy in Stevenson's childhood and evidently decided it was more sensational than illuminating. So he didn't cover it.
If Stevenson were a candidate today, a contemporary Glasgow would almost certainly feel compelled to report the incident. That's a function in part of the proliferation of news outlets and the competition they bring. As my editorial-board colleague Carla Hall put it, "A reporter has to report something that dramatic almost defensively. If you don't print it, someone else will probably find it and print it." And if that happened, just imagine what Glasgow's editor would have said upon finding out that Glasgow had uncovered the skeleton in Stevenson's closet too, but had unilaterally decided not to run with it.
The pressure to report, and to report quickly, comes from readers as well as competitors. We at the Times took a heaping helping of grief for publishing--five days before a 2003 special election--six women's accusations that Republican gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger had groped them. The story came out so late in the campaign because it had spent a long time marinating in the editing process. But to many readers, it seemed like we'd sat on the story in order to spring it on Schwarzenegger at the end of the campaign and sink his candidacy. (He admitted to misbehaving on set and won regardless.)
As a result, the incentives are lined up for journalists in favor of reporting whatever they find, biasing the system in favor of over-disclosing. Maybe that's a good thing in some respects, but to me it leads to too much unverified and irrelevant material being tossed into the public eye. Non-issues get elevated into issues; items of dubious veracity are presented with a disclaimer--hey, we can't tell you if this is true!--for the public to judge for itself. The best example of that would be the Steele dossier that BuzzFeed made public, something a number of more celebrated news organizations refused to do.
I kicked the Glasgow anecdote back and forth Monday with Carla, who was one of the reporters who broke the Gropinator story. The editorial board was grappling Monday with a laundry list of issues raised by Christine Blasey Ford's newly public accusation against President Trump's latest Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. Neither of us thinks for a moment that any reporter would have or should have treated Ford's allegations the way Glasgow handled Stevenson's childhood mishap.
Editorial on 09/30/2018
Print Headline: Dark secrets no longer easy to hide