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Dan Burton in the Lions' Den

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 7, 1998; Page B01

Is Dan Burton's out-of-wedlock son really fair game for the press?

The Indianapolis Star and News broke the story on its Web site Friday after the Republican congressman, faced with imminent publication, fessed up. The journalistic justification was that Burton is leading an investigation of President Clinton, so his own closet can be searched for skeletons.

But does that explanation hold up? Consider:

The extramarital affair, more than a decade old, took place before Burton was elected to Congress. The woman did not work for him and has made no public complaint. The Indiana congressman was paying child support. His wife apparently knew about it. There was no lawsuit or investigation, no allegations of lying under oath. And while Burton has called the president a "scumbag," his criticism has been about improper campaign fund-raising, not Monica Lewinsky.

Vic Caleca, deputy managing editor of the Star and News, says that Burton fathering a child with a woman not his wife is "relevant" because the House committee chairman has positioned himself as a champion of family values. "It's a character issue," says Caleca.

Many journalists would agree. But that particular formulation can be stretched to cover just about anything the media want to report. What politician, after all, is against family values? Had Burton not been leading the fund-raising probe, it's highly unlikely the affair would have been reported. An allegation that Burton pressured a lobbyist for Pakistan for campaign cash speaks more to the hypocrisy question than his admittedly immoral behavior in the early 1980s.

To be sure, Burton put his private life in play days earlier by denouncing the White House for supposedly instigating a Vanity Fair inquiry of the affair (which both the administration and the magazine deny). He tried to deflect attention by blaming his political enemies. But the stampede of reporters and camera crews to the home of Burton's former mistress shows that much of the press was racing to be first to be second.

Some critics say that if the Monica-mad media keep exhuming the sexual histories of politicians, then journalists' private lives ought to be the next target. A serious public backlash could be brewing if the press increasingly goes charging off like the sex police.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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