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Does Character Count?
Journalist Ponders Public Figures, Private Lives, Press Ethics

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs
Posted March 31, 1999

Photo: Journalist Cynthia Tucker

Journalist Cynthia Tucker.

It was the toughest decision of Cynthia Tucker's career. As editorial page editor of The Atlanta Constitution, she had to take a stand: should President Clinton resign or continue to lead the country while facing impeachment?

Despite a mountain of opinion polls showing that most Americans supported Clinton, she stuck her neck out and called for his resignation.

"His credibility was so damaged I felt he wasn't able to effectively run the country," said Tucker in a lecture at the Graduate School of Journalism on March 18.

Tucker said Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky had no bearing on her opinion. The private lives of public figures, she said, have little to do with their ability to lead.

Both John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were men of courage who accomplished great things for the country, she noted. Yet both conducted numerous illicit affairs in private.

"Does this hindsight knowledge of their personal lives illuminate their public work?" asked Tucker, who is also a syndicated columnist. "Did King's civil rights movement have less authority because of his personal moral downfall?"

Most Americans seem to agree with Tucker on the separation of public roles and private lives. Numerous polls conducted during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and impeachment trial showed widespread support for the President despite his transgressions.

And while Kenneth Starr and Linda Tripp took a beating in the polls, Tucker said none scored lower than the media for bombarding audiences with round-the-clock coverage of the scandal.

Yet, ironically, Barbara Walter's interview with Monica Lewinsky drew more than 70 million viewers, the most ever for a television magazine show.

Why the contradiction? Tucker's explanation is that human beings are nosy by nature. "Collected stories create a shared culture among people in a society," she said. She also cited the public's general distrust of politicians since the Vietnam War and Watergate, and the desire to "get beneath the veil" of deceit.

These factors, combined with technological innovations, created a multiplicity of information outlets, resulting in "all Monica all the time," said Tucker. "The human heart has not changed, but the technology has."

Entertaining "only a thin ray of hope" that the media will change the way they cover public figures, Tucker says she expects the 2000 presidential campaign to get nasty.

"The financial gains [from exposing private information] are too great for most media to turn away from," said Tucker.

She encouraged the media to take advantage of the current wide-open, anything-goes journalistic climate to expose abuse and corruption among government agencies.

In the face of commercial demands, however, she fears the press will abandon its journalistic responsibilities and squander this opportunity.

"I hope that is not what the future holds for my profession," said Tucker. "I'm feeling very cynical about my industry right now."

As a Korwin-Pawlowska teaching fellow, Tucker taught classes on opinion writing, reporting on the community, and history, ethics and law during a weeklong visit to the Graduate School of Journalism March 15 to 19.


March 31 - April 6, 1999 (Volume 27, Number 28)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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