This is a straightforward one. Apparently a New York Post reporter somehow came into possession of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s personal journal for 2001. It is, as I imagine President John F. Kennedy’s journal for, say, 1962 would have been, largely a diary about sex, chronicling RFK Jr.’s battles with and evident enjoyment of the family malady, at least on the male side, sex addiction.
The journal is juicy, to say the least, and it also has a tragic side: allegedly Kennedy’s wife Mary discovered and read it shortly before committing suicide last year. RFK Jr. is a radio talk show host, an author, and something of a conspiracy theorist; he also has participated in the shameful and deadly practice of scaremongering regarding vaccines. He is also a Kennedy with a famous father, so in a small bore, minor way, he is sort of a public figure, on the same scale as, oh, let me think…Joey Buttafucco, of Long Island Lolita infamy? Patrick Wayne, the Duke’s B-movie star son? That’s not quite it…something less than Jon Gosselin, Kate’s abused ex-hubby, and more than Daniel Baldwin, the least of the four Baldwin bros.
Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz is this:
Is it ethical for the news media to acquire and publicize the details of a private journal belonging to a minor celebrity with no relevance to current events?
I’m interested in contrary takes, but this is an easy call for me:
When the owner of a private journal is not a candidate for office, a criminal, or an individual whose character is a matter of legitimate public concern, the Golden Rule applies. I know that the media always will publicize such details, and follow the sleazy leader, in this case Rupert Murdoch’s low-life New York Post. I know that the private papers of anyone vaguely recognizable to the public will be happily revealed to the world, dissected and mocked by some publication, just as someone will buy any bootleg video of a half-recognizable actress having sex. (This just in: the now adult actress who played the movie version of children’s book heroine Pippi Longstocking has decided to sell her own copy of such a sex tape after learning that her ex-boy friend is peddling his copy to the highest bidder. Come to think of it, she occupies about the same level of celebrity as Robert Kennedy, Jr., except that she has more credibility.) I know that there is nothing that can be done to stop this, as journalists act as sleaze-launderers even when they know such tapes and journals have been stolen and sold. The question is whether the practice is ethical. And the answer is no.
The reflex rationalization, of course, is that “the public has a right to know” that anyone who is even barely in the public eye is hiding an embarrassing secret, and what that secret is. No, the public really doesn’t. Conservatives may argue that such revelations properly diminish Kennedy’s persuasiveness and credibility as an eco-radical. How? This was the same theory employed by J.Edgar Hoover as he sought to smear Martin Luther King by exposing the civil rights crusader’s adulterous affairs. Adultery implicates trust, but messengers like King and Kennedy (and I apologize for using them in the same sentence) are only as credible as their messages. It isn’t necessary to reveal dirt on Kennedy to debunk much of what he says: his public statements mark him, to any objective observer, as a hysteric, to use one of the kinder terms available, and none too bright as well. It is not necessary, fair or even helpful to steal and publish his diary: If the argument is that by showing that Robert Kennedy’s son is a bad person we undermine his public policy arguments, that is the definition of an ad hominem attack.
The wrongful act is taking anyone’s private diary and not returning it to the rightful owner, unread, uncopied and unpublished. What may or may not be in the pages of the diary is irrelevant—it is private. The contents cannot retroactively justify the original unethical act, and neither can publishing them. If Kennedy were running for office, like Anthony Weiner, and his character was a matter of public importance, as it always should be in elections, the calculus would be different.
Understandably and perhaps predictably, but still damningly, RFK, Jr. has denied that the journal is his, an assertion that literally no one believes. Now that does implicate his credibility. Nonetheless, it is a false denial he should never have been in a position to make.