- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 26, 2004

Talk about your garbage journalism. Why would it be major news that a candidate for the U.S. Senate in Illinois on several occasions allegedly took his wife to clubs where he suggested they have sex with each other? Isn’t that so personal it really is no one’s business even if he is seeking election to that august body whose members, as everyone knows, are as clean as Caesar’s wife?

If the reports of this matter are correct, nothing happened at the clubs. The couple did not participate in anything that could be considered inappropriate, nor were others involved. This was not a case of adultery, and the alleged incidents have come to light only through the release of divorce and child-custody proceedings four years ago that the candidate, Republican Jack Ryan, and his actress-wife, Jeri Lynn Ryan, had every right to expect would remain sealed.

Unless there are charges of wrongdoing on the part of Mr. Ryan, a millionaire former investment banker who gave up his profession to teach in the inner city, this is a non-news event even in Chicago, whose reputation for raucous journalism is well-documented. Unless far more serious than reported, it really has no bearing on Mr. Ryan’s fitness for the job he seeks.

Mr. Ryan’s travails became sensationalized national news after a Chicago newspaper and a television station filed a suit in Los Angeles to open the divorce and custody records and a judge foolishly, if not with malice, ordered them unsealed. He did allow some passages to be blacked out.

Now Mr. Ryan’s already slim chances of winning the seat being vacated by the Republican incumbent have diminished to the point he reportedly is resigning his candidacy in an atmosphere of puritan conservatism that is more like the 16th century than the 21st. The implication — and one that may haunt him forever — is that he did something so distasteful and morally corrupt as to make him unfit for public office.

In the meantime, his wife, whose charges came in the heat of debate over money and children, has expressed her support for his candidacy, calling him a loving father and husband.

One needs to understand that the issue was not raised by one of those scandal-mongering supermarket tabloids whose main approach to “journalism” is to delve into the sex lives of celebrities. It was the Chicago Tribune, historically one of the nation’s most important newspapers — and one that has been a major voice for Republicans — and a television station, WLS, that reaches far beyond the Chicago area.

The newspaper’s reputation resulted in the story being picked up far and wide, including in The Washington Post and as a lead piece in the New York Times’ daily section on the Nation.

So is it any wonder the latest polls about the leanings, motivations and accuracies of the national media show a huge and alarming increase in Americans who believe the primary interest of the press is revenue-generating scandal and sensationalism? That’s not a new allegation in the checkered past of newspapers and, of late, television. But certainly it is disturbing given the proclivity of mainline journals for assuming attitudes of moral and professional superiority.

A recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows a large majority of the public no longer believes the media is moral. In 1985, by some 54 percent to 13 percent, the public gave the press high marks for morality. Surveys reveal that, in 2003, it was only by 40 percent to 38 percent.

Not too long ago, reporting on the intimacies of public officials’ divorce documents would have been relegated to the scandal sheets and not the respected dailies, which would have reported them only if they alleged illegal activities or violence, not whether a husband took his wife to places about which most men and many women fantasize at one time or another.

Mr. Ryan may have put it best when he responded: “There’s no breaking of any laws. There’s no breaking of any marriage laws. There’s no breaking of the Ten Commandments anywhere. And so I think if that’s the worst people can say about me in the heat of a difficult dispute, I think it speaks very well about my character.”

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.

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