JOHN BARBER May 18 1987


JOHN BARBER May 18 1987



Last Sunday, The Herald erroneously reported that original Dolphin Johnny Holmes had been an insurance salesman in Raleigh, N.C., that he had won the New York lottery in 1982 and lost the money in a land swindle, that he had been charged with vehicular homicide but acquitted because his mother said she drove the car, and that he stated that the funniest thing he ever saw was Flipper spouting water on George Wilson. Each of these items was erroneous material published inadvertently. — The Miami Herald, Dec. 23, 1986.

Admissions like that are the stuff of nightmares for journalists, and in The Miami Herald— winner of a Pulitzer Prize last month for its reporting on the Iran-contra affair—they are rare. Indeed, last week Herald publisher Richard Capen expressed no contrition when U.S. presidential hopeful Gary Hart bitterly denounced the newspaper’s allegation that he had had a weekend tryst in Washington

with Miami model Donna Rice. Hart labelled the story “mis-

leading and false.” But Capen, a member of the New York audience that the candidate for the Democratic party nomination was addressing, rose and declared: “The issue is not The Miami Herald. It is Gary Hart’s judgment.” Bedrooms: The pointed exchange between politician and journalist went to the heart of the matter. That is because the accuracy of reporting—the Herald has admitted that its original May 3 story may have been flawed—and the propriety of subjecting politicians to such close scrutiny have now become an issue. Still, many U.S. commentators reached a similar conclusion about the alleged scandal and the coverage it generated: that the Herald piece marked a radical departure from the days when journalists freely traded such stories with each other but never printed them. For Canadians, the Hart scandal has focused attention on the fact that the private lives of public figures have come under increased examination during the past 20 years. That change has been accepted grudgingly, and former Montreal Liberal MP Pierre Deniger summed up

the feelings of most politicians. Paraphrasing a famed 1967 quotation by then-justice minister Pierre Trudeau, Deniger declared: “The press has no place in the bedrooms of politicians.” For his part, Hart lashed out at the

press in his first public appearance following the story-before newspaper executives at a convention in New York. He charged that the Herald reporters had presented “inaccurate conclusions” based on “spotty surveillance” and insisted that they had “refused to interview the very people who could have given them the facts.” Added Hart: “I hope you’ll ask yourself

some searching questions about what is right and what is truthful.” ‘Lie’: But Hart did not deal with the contradictions between his account of his activities and the Herald's version of events. And on May 7 the paper replied in a stinging editorial headlined “Now the coverup.” It endorsed the orig-

inal story and added that on the Saturday night in question, Herald reporters did confront Hart, and denounced “Mr. Hart’s willingness to lie to protect his candidacy from the justified condemnation of public opinion.” Challenge: The controversy about whether the Herald's nocturnal stakeout violated Hart’s privacy was largely deflated when reports of an interview Hart granted before the scandal ran in The New York Times Magazine. Responding to persistent rumors that he indulged in extramarital affairs, Hart challenged reporters “to put a tail on me” and added: “I’m serious. They’d be very bored.” Still, many observers argued that in general such intense scrutiny was unjustified and would only discourage good candidates from seeking office in the future. The ethics of the Herald's rush to

print its story also came under fire, and some critics deplored the newspaper’s tactics. Declared New York Times columnist A. M. Rosenthal: “[They were] hiding in the dark, listening for squeaking bedsprings.” Others recalled that

such men as U.S. presidents John F. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt had led the country well, even though reporters knew about—but did not print— stories about their infidelities. Curiosity: In the United States, such cozy relationships ended during the protracted debates about the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair in the early

1970s—a scandal that turned on thenpresident Richard Nixon’s attempts to conceal his knowledge about a breakin at Democratic National Committee headquarters. In Canada, the change to intensified press scrutiny has been more gradual, beginning with widespread public curiosity about Pierre Trudeau’s

rise to the leadership of the federal Liberals in 1968.

But the Ottawa press corps’ attempts to reveal personal details about the man behind so-called Trudeaumania were rebuffed by a Prime Minister who insisted on his privacy. Former Southam News columnist Charles Lynch, for one, said that he regretted Southam’s decision in the late 1960s not to pursue stories about the bachelor Prime Minister’s pri-

vate life when Trudeau began consorting with such glamorous celebrities as Barbra Streisand. Lynch said that the foreign press was much more aggressive in covering Trudeau’s love life, and as a result, said Lynch, “it made our guys look rather sleepy.”

Rock: In 1971 Trudeau married 22-year-old Margaret Sinclair in Vancouver-taking as a bride a woman whose widely publicized activities later helped to usher Canadian news coverage into the age of personal journalism. Even when Margaret Trudeau’s newsworthiness reached its height, after a 1977 weekend rendezvous in Toronto with members of the Rolling Stones rock band, Canadian reporters struggled to catch up with their foreign colleagues. And they gasped along with the public when Trudeau provided pungent details about her “strong sexual energies” later that year in an interview with Robin

Leach of People magazine.

Canadian journalists approach such coverage cautiously, many reporters say, because libel laws in this country are stricter than those in the United States. There, lawyers can argue that a reporter’s allegation represented fair comment. And even if such allegations are shown to be untrue, a public figure must then prove that the journalist acted maliciously in order to win a libel case in a

U.S. court. By contrast, truth is the only defence for anyone accused of libel in Canada. Another reason, according to Peter Desbarats, dean of journalism at the University of Western Ontario in London, is that “when they do run that kind of stuff the audience often reacts very critically.” He said that as a result Canadian journalists are not as aggressive as they should be in pursuing such stories.

But increased scrutiny of public figures is now established journalistic practice in both countries. For one thing, the Toronto Globe and Mail recently published several articles on the redecoration of 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa. The articles noted that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his wife, Mila, had spent tens of thousands of dollars of Conservative party funds altering the official residence. That money, the newspaper noted, came from tax-deductible donations provided by Conservative supporters. At the same time, however,

the articles provided a tantalizing glimpse into the Mulroneys’ private life. Among other things, they disclosed that the redecoration included a special closet capable of holding more than 50 pairs of Gucci loafers favored by the Prime Minister.

Delay: Reporter Stevie Cameron, who led the Globe investigation, declared that the newspaper had not set out “to find out what was in the Mulroneys’ closets.” She said that the main point of the articles was to prove that party funds were used for the job, and the personal details were included “because it tells us what kind of people live there.” Indeed, Cameron said that her editors delayed printing any information until she had established that party funds were involved.

Certainly reporters who pursue such stories sometimes risk censure from their colleagues. One of them, Ottawa-based Canadian Press reporter Robert Fife, said that he sympathizes with the Herald reporters who risked their professional reputations by staking out Hart’s „ townhouse. Fife and fellow il CP staffer Tim Naumetz z have earned reputations as ¿ two of the capital’s top inb vestigative reporters. For for Guccis one thing, they disclosed last year that thenMulroney aide William Fox had submitted an expense account for almost $600 for drinks bought for reporters attending a 1985 Commonwealth conference in Nassau. But several journalists named in the account said that they could not remember accepting drinks from Fox. He in turn later said that he had compiled the expense account from memory. Fife said that the disclosure angered many of his colleagues in the press gallery.

‘Sexy’: Still, Fife defends his aggressive approach: “These days, nothing goes. If you’ve done something wrong, we’ll write about it.” Added another Ottawa reporter: “If you’ve got the story and it looks sexy, you go with it. If the other guy runs it, that’s scandalmongering.” That contest will persist as long as such stories continue to appear. And those tough standards of public morality will claim casualties among aspirants to high office—as Hart’s ruined campaign clearly demonstrates.