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News / Clark County News

From the Newsroom: Private lives, public figures

By Craig Brown, Columbian Editor
Published: November 4, 2023, 6:05am

One of the classic questions in journalism is what is fair game to report about the private lives of public officials.

The standard has changed greatly over the years. In the 1930s and ’40s, newspapers and radio networks refrained from reporting that Franklin D. Roosevelt used a wheelchair to get around. Very few photos exist of Roosevelt sitting in a wheelchair, while there are many news photos of him standing at podiums. The reality was that after coming down with polio at age 39, Roosevelt never truly walked again.

Did the public have a right to know? By running the podium photos, was the media guilty of delivering a false portrait of the president? Historians still debate this.

As late as the 1960s, the news media largely turned a blind eye to President Kennedy’s frequent marital infidelity. Times changed after Watergate. In 1988, stories about Democratic Sen. Gary Hart’s promiscuity sunk his presidential campaign.

We’ve had a few local incidents where private lives of public people were reported. I recall an incident from 2007. State Rep. Richard Curtis, R-La Center, was a married man who opposed bills to legalize same-sex marriage and prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. But on a legislative trip to Spokane, Curtis was caught up in an extortion scheme by a man he allegedly met at a porn shop and invited to his hotel room for a sexual encounter.

And we went all out on coverage after former Living Hope Church’s founding pastor, John Bishop, was arrested at the Mexican border with a Volkswagen full of marijuana. Bishop eventually served time in federal prison.

That brings me to the last couple of weeks, when we dealt with this “fair game” question a couple of times.

The first incident was on Oct. 26, when Battle Ground Police and the Clark County Medical Examiner both issued news releases stating that the on-duty death of Sgt. Richard Kelly was due to the combined toxic effects of illicit use of fentanyl and methamphetamine. Kelly was found unresponsive at his desk at the police station on Aug. 10, and died later that evening at a local hospital. It’s a sad story, but certainly in the sphere of the public’s right to know, as it has triggered an investigation into how Battle Ground police handle seized narcotics.

Then this week, Clark County Council Chair Karen Bowerman was once again absent from meetings, for what a county spokeswoman said are health issues. She’s been absent since Oct. 4, and it delayed county business, so we wrote a story.

It’s unknown whether Bowerman’s latest setback is related to the same undisclosed health conditions that she says have largely kept her from attending council meetings and county events in person since the pandemic. We are continuing to try to learn more, and will report what we discover.

Here are my thoughts. People who are in the public spotlight should expect to have details about themselves become public knowledge, if it is germane to the performance of their public duty. That was the case with Curtis, Bishop, Kelly and Bowerman.

But not all details are relevant enough to be reported. We have observed but haven’t written much about Bowerman’s choice to attend council meetings using the internet. A lot of people are working that way since the pandemic, not just those with health problems.

And sometimes the details just can’t be verified. This week I got an anonymous letter alleging a local candidate for public office had an incestuous relationship with a sibling that apparently has never been reported to the police. It might be relevant to voters, but how can we determine if it is true?

Sometimes it’s important to report details about the private lives of public figures. But there needs to be a reason established before hitting the “publish” button.