Ethics Quiz: RFK Jr.’s Despicable, Private Journal


News value? We already knew that the acorn doesn’t fall far from the tree—did we need to read RFK, Jr.s diary to prove it?

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:

Absolutely not.

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.


Sources: Slate, Daily Mail, Huffington Post, New York Mag, New York Post


17 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: RFK Jr.’s Despicable, Private Journal

  1. Hi Jack. I see you employed the Golden Rule here and I don’t disagree, but what are your thoughts on this being a categorical imperative–is it EVER ethical to reveal this kind of information about someone not seeking any kind of public office?

    • I’d say there are also exceptions for anyone already in high elected or appointed office with national security implications or where extortion and blackmail are issues—General Petraeus, for example. JFK’s sexual escapades endangered national security. Any appointed position that required an FBI check that inquired into such activities. Judges, perhaps? It’s a great question.

  2. If they bought it, waited for the New York Democratic Party to nominate him as their candidate for the Senate, then published it, would it be ethical?

    I guess I am getting weary of these “gotcha” stories about candidates that eliminate them from office. Imagine if we eliminated a major, viable candidate from office because his Dad rented a vacation property that some people said had a word painted on a rock somewhere that some people felt was racist, but no one had a picture of it because it had been removed long ago. Imagine if we ended up with two lackluster candidates as our only choices for this office because of this. But that would just be silly, no one would believe that we ended a candidate’s run for that.

  3. Okay, I’ll attempt to offer the countering view here.

    Kennedy is, by dint of birth, a public figure of the marginal nature you suggest should protect him from this type of exposure. One could certainly argue that mere heredity is not sufficient in and of itself to render such a public figure open to this type of discovery, and I would agree on that point, if it were limited to that.

    But Kennedy has NOT limited himself to that. He does not quietly live with his name, the fortune and all the baggage that it brings. As you have noted he is a talk radio host, and a case could be made that that sufficiently limits he exposure to the same measure of privacy the rest of us expect (and believed we had, up until a few months ago).

    But Kennedy goes well beyond that. He has used his name and his connections frequently, rendering HIMSELF more of a public figure. He is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. He has written two books and published articles and opinion pieces in, among others, The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, The Nation, Outside magazine and The Village Voice.

    He has also, on at least three occasions, entertained serious interest in elected office (US Senate from New York, 2000, 2008; New York State Attorney General, 2005). And he regularly serves as a featured speaker at various events.

    If Kennedy lived quietly and did not actively seek to promote his views in a wide variety of channels – and let us remember, these are moralizing views – then I would completely agree. But he does not. He espouses positions that have direct impacts upon the lives of others, and uses the family name in order to give those views more weight.

    Based upon the above, I’d say he’s a fair target.

    And I recognize that the above leaves me open to charges of confirmation bias.

  4. RFK was a great man, warts and all. It’s hard for me to get upset about somebody from the New York Post publishing something about Robert Kennedy Jr. He has stated that he has senatorial ambitions and conservative talk show commentators’ political ambitions have been squelched when it came out that they visited a strip club which to me is a venial sin if anything. We’ve had too many Weiners and Filners for my taste pull far worse stuff.

  5. Regarding the “acorn doesn’t fall from the tree” comment, I don’t get the correlation. I don’t recall Robert Kennedy Jr’s., dad being involved in sex scandals except to try and cover up those of his brother. Am I missing something here?

    • It’s a murky area, not helped by the fact that the Kennedys furiously and litigiously protect Camelot and all related to it. There are as many historical accounts, of varying degrees of respectability, that link Marilyn to Robert sexually as much as to Bobby; an elderly historian I knew personally said he had off the record personal conversations with Kennedy friends and associates that Jack often passed his conquests down to his little brother. At least one author’s research indicates that Jackie and Bobby had an affair after Jack’s death. Since sexual profligacy was a legacy on the male side passed down by Joe Sr. and the record of the clan is atrocious, I find it difficult to believe that Bobby was the exception—or put another way, based on a lifetime of observing the Kennedys, it is easy for me to believe the accounts that RFK like his father and brothers.

  6. As a woman who has dealt with adultery, divorce, and a child custody lawsuit, I freely admit to bias here, but here goes anyway.

    He clearly has difficulty controlling himself.

    As far as custody battles, anything can be “discovered” and submitted as “evidence”. ANYTHING. Including his diary. This could, would, and should have come out in their custody battle.

    He felt free to accuse Mary of being unstable, crazy, violent, etc. This provides a piece of insight as to her behavior. I daresay her behavior did not occur in a vacuum.

    Was it unethical to publish his private diary? Well, I wouldn’t want it to happen to me (why I don’t keep one! I inevitably destroy them).

    Does he deserve it? You betcha! He assassinated Mary’s character, and I am glad she is fighting back after her death.

    He humiliated and embarrassed and abandoned her. Gee, publication of his embarrassing diary makes me believe in KARMA.

    NO sympathy for these jerks.

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