COLUMN: Media goes too far in hounding fallen public figures

Tuesday, January 19, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 9:36 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Interpretations of the Constitution allude to an individual’s right to privacy, but, as in a number of other unstated, indirectly implied rights and privileges, that precise wording is nowhere to be found. Since the early 1920s, the Supreme Court has broadly held the “liberty” clause of the 14th Amendment to guarantee a liberal right of privacy, encompassing issues such as procreation, marriage, child rearing and termination of medical treatments.

Since I favor more the strict constructionist interpretation of the Constitution, I believe much of this broad view to be a bit imaginative, a stretch of the framers' intent. When the courts are permitted such broad latitude, can an interpretation of the “welfare” clause in the preamble to mean food stamps, free health care and a guaranteed college education for all be far behind?

Nevertheless, there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in one’s home, one’s person and, in particular, one’s reputation. But it is generally accepted that a public figure — be it the president or Tiger Woods — enjoy virtually no legal right to privacy in that the information available to the media about a politician or celebrity is open for publication. Where public figures are involved, the newsworthy will trump the right to privacy, so long as the information is true and is aired with no intent of malice nor harm.

That a politician or other celebrity’s actions constitute news is not disputed; nevertheless, the proliferating media outlets and the ever increasing predatory and mean spirited “gotcha” journalism of today have become intentionally malicious and harmful. This trait is most prevalent in television and radio talk shows and in syndicated columnists (MSNBC’s Keith Olberman and talk radio’s Michael Savage epitomize the former; The New York Times' Maureen Dowd and Ann Coulter of Universal Press Syndicate stand out as the wicked witches of the print profession.)

While many derive an amused satisfaction when one of their unfavored is zinged by one obviously possessed of malice, I believe most prefer a more civil discourse of issues versus personal attacks. There is a need for more thoughtful, objective and civil journalists out here, lest the bullies and muckrakers carry the day.

A classic example of a celebrity constantly targeted by the opposition with the most vituperative and vitriolic of personal attacks is former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin who, judging from the attention from the left, is a gift that keeps on giving. A favorite target of columnists Dowd, Ellen Goodman and Kathleen Parker, she seems a pariah among the “sisterhood," described by Ambrose Bierce as “the deadlier of the species.” Inasmuch as the progressive left deems Palin uncultured and lacking political acumen, is there really the need to obsess over her?

The most recent celebrities to face the media’s undivided albeit not unbiased attention are golf great Woods and baseball’s one-time home run king Mark McGwire. Woods has been pilloried incessantly for infidelity while McGwire is under the gun for, at long last, coming clean about steroid use. At one time, both were the unquestioned crown jewels in their sports. They share another common denominator, that of having their lives turned inside out by excessive publishing of their admitted indiscretions as well as of rumor and innuendo.

Celebrities — the good, bad and ugly — are newsworthy and fair game for reporters. However, to be publicly hounded, ridiculed and subjected to abuse far exceeding that given to the likes of convicted former Reps. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, Robert Ney and William Jefferson or even Philadelphia cop killer Mumia Abu Jamal is a bit much.

To be sure, they disappointed their fans and failed as role models, but they are not the first to demonstrate feet of clay nor did their indiscretions adversely affect anyone other than themselves and their families. Each has offered the apologies now expected of the rich and the famous; however, their transgressions are not ours to forgive but rather one of individual conscience and character.

In McGwire’s case, I am tempted to cut him some slack for two reasons. He saved baseball for many of us who swore off the sport after the 1994 strike and were staying away in droves. His prodigious and record-setting home runs restored the fan base. Equally important, he demonstrated a unique loyalty. Today most professional athletes sell out to the highest bidder. He remained with St. Louis, knowing he could have written his ticket elsewhere.

McGwire and Woods are public figures who are perhaps forever tainted by surrendering to temptation. In the form of evidence and admission of guilt, their wrongs have been duly reported and dissected. But enough is enough. The notion that a public figure’s limited expectation of privacy targets him or her for repeated journalistic bullying is reprehensible.

J. Karl Miller retired as a colonel in the Marine Corps. He is a Columbia resident and can be reached via e-mail at

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Tim Dance January 19, 2010 | 9:29 a.m.

Guaranteed college education. oooo scary. Can send thousands of kids to college for one fighter jet. Rather have them in college, then a pawn in a never-ending game of "who's the bud guy"

(Report Comment)
Nathan Stephens January 21, 2010 | 6:58 a.m.

The author fails to mention what Tiger Woods has done for the sport of golf. Many including myself had no interest in the sport until a certain young phenom named Tiger Woods out of Stanford University declared himself a pro and started shredding records long held by the golf elite. A case in point is the drop in viewers of the PGA once Tiger retired. Reports are that there was 40 percent drop in the viewers of the PGA event after Tiger stepped down. In no other sport in the history of this country has one person had THAT kind of an immediate impact. Yet the author fails to mention this. Also it should be noted that Tiger's "indiscretion" as it has been referred to here did not enhance his ability to play the game, thus giving him an unfair advantage. I do agree however that at some point the media needs to just lay off. But as long as we "the people," continue to read their newspapers, watch their "news reports" and pick up magazines like People magazine, containing these reports, they will never cease.

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