Thirty years ago today, the way journalists cover politicians changed forever.
At the time, reporters had long considered politicians’ private lives off-limits.
But on May 3, 1987, the Miami Herald reported that Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart had spent part of the weekend at his townhouse with a young woman who was not his wife.
Hart was surprised by the story – in large part because the reporters in the 1980s did not generally venture into the private lives of public figures.
But as Rick Pearlstein wrote in a 2001 Columbia Journalism Review article, Hart felt the press should have been focusing on the more substantive public policy matters of the day, such as “the brutal Contra insurgency; abuses of the military industrial complex; corrupt unaccountability with public funds.”
In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election – in which coverage often focused more on personality than policy – is it possible that Hart was right?
Clearly, greater transparency has had positive effects on the media and democracy, but with the growth of the Internet and social media, stories on personal matters are appearing with increasing frequency regardless of their impact on public policy.
For example, as vile as Donald Trump’s Hollywood Access comments were, how well did they speak to his ability to govern the nation? Would voters have been better served by more stories examining his leadership skills, management style and business practices?
Back in 1987 journalists struggled with whether to report on Hart’s personal life. They ultimately decided it was an important story to report– largely because it reinforced questions about Hart’s character.
Today’s journalists continue to struggle with difficult decisions regarding what to report about the private lives of public figures. In the 30 years that have passed since the Gary Hart story broke, the pendulum clearly has swung the other way. Perhaps, it may have even swung too far. Perhaps Gary Hart was right because when stories of substance take a back seat to shiny objects, voters are less informed about important public policy issues.
But a healthy democracy also requires a commitment from the electorate. Today, more resources than ever are available to help voters make informed and educated choices when they cast their ballots. Those resources include many well-researched and well-reported news stories on health care, education, the economy and other public policy issues.
To ensure a healthy democracy, voters need to choose to read more stories of substance and spend less time catching up on celebrity gossip, diet crazes and viral YouTube videos. If and when this happens, the pendulum may swing back to where it belongs.