Press: Back Off Bristol Palin!

We in the press need to be absolutely sure that when we strip subjects of their privacy over matters they do not want disclosed, we have some higher ethical justification. In this case, there was none.
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When an individual throws him or herself into the glare of publicity by standing for public office, does the candidate drag the members of their family along with them? And should the press feel obligated to reveal prior or current indiscretions of the family members as they do the candidate?

There are several baseline questions that need to be addressed before answering either of these very troublesome questions: Has the candidate made his/her relationship with their family an issue in the campaign? Has the family member injected himself/herself into the campaign? What is the nature of the indiscretion? How old is the family member? Does the family member's act (or omission) shed any helpful light on the character of the candidate?

Let's look at the situation of Bristol Palin, five-months-pregnant, unmarried, 17-year-old daughter of Republican vice presidential candidate-in-waiting, Sarah Palin, governor of Alaska. The Palin camp announced the pregnancy in an effort to debunk rumors that cropped up in the blogosphere that the candidate's five-month-old son had actually been born to her daughter, Bristol, not to her.

With respect to the first question -- has the candidate made her relationship with her family an issue in the campaign -- the answer is a qualified yes. While Palin has not really been a candidate long enough (she was anointed Friday) to have made much of anything an issue in the campaign yet, her "family values" positions are certainly among the principal reasons she was chosen by McCain. In fact in the speech announcing her selection, he called her emblematic of "the hopes and the values of working people." So, an editor could make an argument that the "family values" issue makes a daughter's teen pregnancy fair game in a presidential race.

Has the family member injected herself into the campaign? Absolutely not. Aside from a quick photo shot of Bristol, alongside her brother and sisters on the platform on Friday, I have not heard a word she's uttered in support of her mother, McCain, the Republican platform or, for that matter, any public issue.

What is the nature of the indiscretion? A teen pregnancy out-of-wedlock. I don't think this clears the bar for press exposure. In 2001, the 19-year-old Bush girls, Barbara and Jenna, received misdemeanor citations from the Austin, TX police for underage drinking. There were those at the time who felt it was unfair for the press to inquire about and probe the incident and the Bushes' reaction. When law enforcement gets involved and there is a public record, the incident is fair game. When Andrew Giuliani put his name on a lawsuit against Duke University and filed suit, that is fair game for reporting. When a 17-year-old girl gets herself pregnant, I believe the press ought to stand down unless there's an unusually good justification for publishing.

How old is the family member? 17. Would any parent out there want to be judged as fit or unfit for their job on the basis of the nutty or irresponsible stuff our kids do? Even the proudest of parents knows that we're just a hair's breadth away from potentially disastrous consequences -- particularly with teenagers. This is not Billy Carter, or some other wacky adult relative who should be held responsible for his actions -- this is a near-child, who made a stupid mistake and now will live with it. It is very different than a responsible adult relative who screws up and embarrasses the candidate (and almost always knows that they're going to).

And finally, does the family member's conduct shed any light on the fitness of the candidate to hold office or on the candidate's morals, principles or values? The answer here is no. I am sure that in the days and weeks ahead there will be many things we learn about Sarah Palin that will make us acutely perplexed as to why John McCain thought she was the best possible option to be his second-in-command, but having a pregnant teenage daughter will definitely not be on the list. There are those that argue that having a teenage daughter get pregnant may be some reflection of her mothering skills, her attentiveness, her insight into her own family. I don't buy it. And even were that so, it would not provide any window on her suitability for the office of vice president; it would only be a measure of her mothering.

The toughest ethical questions faced by journalists involve when to involuntarily strip subjects of their privacy over matters they do not want disclosed. Since privacy is one of the most cherished values in a civilized society, we in the press need to be absolutely sure that when we do it, we have some higher ethical justification. In this case, there was none.

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