Vitter, Craig, and My Pen Pal, The Ethicist


When “DC Madam” Debra Jeane Palfrey released her phonelists in July, I, like a lot of other journalists, pored over the lists looking for numbers of local politicians. I found a few numbers in St. Paul, Minnesota, home to our State Capitol and some of the local offices of our delegation in D.C. I called one number and got a voicemail; I heard a male voice I couldn’t identify.

Creeped out by such sordid research, I emailed Randy Cohen, who writes “The Ethicist” column for the New York Times Magazine, about the ethics of such digging. He quickly replied, but I didn’t end up pursuing a story. But with the news this week of Sen. Larry Craig who pled guilty to soliciting gay sex in a bathroom at the Minneapolis airport, the discussion seems worth reviving, especially since Sen. David Vitter, a “moral values” Republican, apologized that his number came up on Palfrey’s list (an admission of guilt, if you ask me) but keeps his job, while Craig — who got busted before a lewd deed could be committed — resigned from office today. Vitter is southern campaign chair for Rudy Giuliani’s presidential bid; Craig was co-chair of Mitt Romney’s.

My email to Cohen (notice how in my question, I seem to try to channel Cohen’s pithy writing style):

I’m wondering if you could weigh in on a media-related ethics question: What are the ethics surrounding the release of the phone lists held by the so-called “D.C. madam” Debra Jeane Palfrey? Her release of private phone numbers, even were she in a less, uh, sensitive business, seems to violate privacy. And now reporters (myself included) are considering how to use this information. Some websites are crowdsourcing — using a vast network of reader-researchers — to track down all the numbers and see who they belong to (a project Larry Flynt is reportedly devoting a lot of staff time to). A cursory look at the files revealed that there were at least two calls placed by Palfrey to Minnesota numbers — and who knows how many more to the Washington cellphones of our legislators or business people.

Is it ethical for reporters to reveal the numbers now that Palfrey has? Can we make any firm assumptions about what calls placed by the Madam or her employees mean? (One site mentioned that a call went out to an East Coast oyster shack — could be a late night booty call, or just a call to whet another insatiable urge — for crustaceans. After writers like me have decried the Paris Hilton fixation of our biggest papers and news networks, are we hypocrites to dig into these tawdry details? (My take: I think when a senator who crusades for the sanctity of marriage admits he’s used the escort service, anything goes!) Are there other ethical issues for a reporter (or even a personal blogger) to consider?

Cohen’s reply:

Tough question, Paul. But then, that’s why I make the big ethics money.

I think you may be using the wrong analogy. Rather than regarding Palfrey’s operation as akin to any other business and hence governed by similar ethical guidelines, I see it as a criminal operation — that is, if it is proven to be so; she denies criminality — and thus evoking different expectations of privacy. Much information about criminal conduct is routinely made public. In prostitution arrests, for example, the prostitutes are named, and many people — including me — believe that the Johns should be as well, simply as a matter of gender equality.

As you say, simply calling or being called by Palfrey is, of course, not a crime, and journalists must be clear about that: sometimes takeout oysters are only takeout oysters, as Freud should have written. But a reporter can think through the likely reasons for a name being in her phone book.

Palfrey’s callers can be written about because there is a reasonable suspicion that they might have committed a crime — not, as her customer Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana says, because he committed a sin. His spiritual failings are his own business; his criminal conduct is relevant to his constituents.

There’s another distinction to be made, between a private and a public figure. We accord greater privacy to the former than the latter and rightly so. Choosing to enter public life means voluntarily surrendering much privacy — financial disclosure forms come easily to mind. As an ethical matter, the same is true about private sexual conduct. I’d not hesitate to report Vitter’s involvement in this story; I would be more cautious about naming private individuals.

I’d go further and say that even legal private sexual conduct can be revealed if it has a direct bearing on a public figure’s official actions. For example, it is a fine thing to out an elected official who’s taken militantly anti-gay stands but turns out to be gay himself. His hypocrisy bears on his politics. But it would not be fine to out a secretly gay Secretary of Agriculture, for instance: his sex life has no bearing on farm policy. Vitter’s made political hay out of his “values;” his involvement with an escort service, even a legal one, bears directly on that and should be reported.

So, what do you think: Is the media treating Craig fairly? And what about Republicans, who called for an ethics inquiry on Craig but not on Vitter?