Monday, October 11, 2010

Like kicking a crippled puppy..

This week's blog entry is about a story you didn't read in The Virginia Gazette.

You didn't read it because I, along with Editor Rusty Carter and Publisher Bill O'Donovan thought it was a tawdry invasion of someone's privacy, and a political low blow that crossed the line.

If you live in the 1st Congressional District and you've followed other media, you probably know what I'm talking about.

Last week embarrassing photos of Democratic candidate Krystal Ball appeared on a Republican blog. The photos, from a party when Ball was 22, showed her in a Santa-themed dominatrix outfit with a man identified as her ex-husband wearing a red rubber phallus for a nose.

It looked a lot like the kind of thing most of us probably did once or twice while in college. Would you want everything you did in college spread across the Internet?

The photos quickly spread through the Republican blogosphere, and beyond, though many GOP bloggers took them down at the request of Rep. Rob Wittman's campaign.

The Wittman camp said it wanted to run on the issues and, from a practical standpoint, they don't need the controversy. They stand to trounce Ball in the heavily Republican 1st District. It would be a moral victory for her to score more than 40% of the vote.

That's what made the decision the decision to post the photos so mean-spirited. It was unnecessary and uncalled for. It was like kicking a crippled puppy.

We've already run several stories on Ms. Ball's finances, which are very complicated for the young "wife and mother" with "a net worth of less than $100,000" who began running for Congress a year ago. Those questions are legitimate.

The photos are a political cheap shot.

Unfortunately the photos weren't confined to the Republican blogs. They were picked up by the widely read, generally Democratic-leaning Not Larry Sabato blog. From there they were picked up by several television stations and regional daily newspapers. Eventually the story headlined national news blog and the D.C. comedy site, Wonkette. Ball was scheduled to appear on the NBC's "Today" show to address the controversy.

I saw the pictures shortly after they were posted. I brought them to the attention of my editors and we dismissed the story as not newsworthy. Other news organizations made a different judgment once Ball responded to the photos.

We considered revisiting the story Saturday; writing about the publicity the controversy had brought to the generally obscure campaign of Ball and of the Wittman campaign's call for the photos to be taken down.

We decided against that.

I'm glad we did. Ignoring it is really the only kind of response this sort of thing deserves.

The problem with this kind of story is that it reduces the ethics of the entire media to that of the most partisan, unethical blogger. Once the story is "out there" on the Internet, legitimate news agencies decide it's fair game.

That has two effects. One, it continues to blur the line between gossip and news. There's seldom anything newsworthy about what 22-year-olds do at college parties. It has nothing to do with their ability to serve years later. Two, it further erodes the concept of privacy, already eaten away by government surveillance and our own voluntary over-sharing on social media.

As more and more people from the Facebook Generation step up to run for office, this will become a larger problem. We need to establish standards now for what is and isn't germane. A criminal charge in college is certainly something we'd want to report on.  Behavior at a private party that we only know about because someone took pictures and posted them on the Internet is not.

Just because it's possible for us to know something doesn't mean it's any of our business.

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