Balancing privacy with the right to know
A politician resigns to protect a damaging secret about his personal life. Should you expose his secret even though he is no longer a public figure?
By Timothy D. Smith
Timothy M. Smith, a professor of journalism at Kent State University, is the former managing editor of the Beacon Journal, Akron, OH.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 7 (October 1989), p. 4.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
On the afternoon of April 5, 1979, a stocky blonde in a blue dress driving a gray sedan was pulled over by a Medina sheriff’s deputy answering a burglary call.
The deputy ordered the blonde from the car and asked for identification. The blonde, heavily made up with lipstick and rouge and wearing a wig, responded that his name was Mark Whitfield.
If the deputy was nervous, it wasn’t because he had just nabbed a desperate criminal.
Mark Whitfield was a Medina County commissioner – one of the trio of officials who formed the executive authority for county government. He was also the son of Judge Neil Whitfield, probably the county’s most prominent and powerful public official.
The deputy was new to the job but it did not take a veteran to understand the potential for disaster in this situation. He radioed for assistance and the sheriff himself responded. Before the sheriff could get to the scene, one of his top officers arrived and drove Whitfield home to change.
No arrest was made nor any charges filed, even though Whitfield admitted trying to get into the home of a woman he knew slightly. (His attempt had been spotted by a neighbor.)
Instead, the sheriff called the woman and her husband into his office to meet with Whitfield a few days later. Whitfield did not, or could not, explain his actions. He merely admitted the attempt, as well as a similar attempt the previous February. He acknowledged having a “problem” and promised to get psychiatric help.
The woman and her husband agreed not to press charges, provided that Whitfield stayed away from them.
Even though no formal charges were filed, the reporter covering Medina County for the Akron Beacon Journal heard bits and pieces about Whitfield’s “problem.”
After considerable prodding, the sheriff confirmed the events, including how Whitfield was dressed that day.
Next, the reporter confronted Whitfield with what she had uncovered. He begged her not to publish the story because of what it would do to his family and to his father, who, he insisted, knew nothing of his problems.
She pointed out that he appeared to be at the mercy of anyone who wanted something from the commissioners’ office. He was a public official with a secret that could be very damaging.
Whitfield wanted the story killed for obvious reasons. The reporter and I conferred over Whitfield’s request, but there was no room for compromise.
The most we could do was give him the weekend to break the news to his family before the story appeared.
Publication was scheduled for a Tuesday. On Monday, Whitfield abruptly announce his resignation from office “for personal reasons.”
With Whitfield out of office, was there still a story? No charges had been filed. The facts weren’t in dispute, but were they still newsworthy?
Was it fair to write a story saying the real reason Whitfield had resigned was to avoid public disclosure of his transvestitism? It seemed particularly cruel to reveal now the condition that Whitfield had given up his public career to keep private.
The editor, the managing editor and I (then metro editor) debated through the day whether to run the story as the explanation of the “personal reasons.” The arguments in favor of publication were vintage journalistic ones: we had a good story all to ourselves; there was no question as to accuracy; we had put in a lot of time and effort on the story.
On the other side, there was an equally good journalistic argument: it wasn’t fair to do the story now that Whitfield had voluntarily eliminated what we had said was the main reason for the story – his status as an elected official.
The decision was that the story died with the end of Whitfield’s public career.
There was, however, plenty of opportunity for second-guessing. A few years later, Whitfield considered running for Congress. Was the story now news again? Was it fair to dredge up the past?
We had killed the story because Whitfield had stepped out of the public spotlight. If he were to re-enter it voluntarily, then those aspects of his personality that had been fair game in the past would become fair game again.
At least, that was the prevailing attitude, but no final decision was required because the filing deadline passed with no petition from Whitfield.
That wasn’t the end, though. In the mid-80s, Whitfield was identified as the prime suspect in a bizarre case involving the death of his secretary some 10 years earlier. She had been found nude, hanging by a scarf in her bedroom closet.
The investigation that led to Whitfield’s indictment for her murder (he was acquitted) also resulted in disclosure of the transvestite episode.
The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer picked up on that aspect of the larger story first, followed shortly by Cleveland Magazine.
The magazine reported our explanation for not using the story. Perhaps it was just my thin skin, but there also seemed to be a suggestion that the elder Whitfield’s influence might have been a factor as well. I guess it was the price to be paid for killing a story that later came out anyway. Our motives could be challenged in hindsight, but nothing that has happened since has altered my belief that we did the right thing in not publishing the Whitfield episode at the time.
The reason we went after the story was our belief that Whitfield’s private life could have affected his public performance. He certainly was open to pressure from anyone who wanted favors from a powerful public official. His resignation did not change what had happened, but it changed our duty to report what we knew.