In an age of information, every incident involving the famous is instantaneous grist for the media mill, making them more famous. And while that statement is such a truism as to seem tautological, its impact on people's lives can still hit home unexpectedly, as it did with me last week.
When Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) bowed out of the presidential sweepstakes last week after two weeks of relentless newspaper and television reports on his law school record and campaign speech plagiarism, his departure followed the pattern of Gary Hart, whose presidential hopes similarly ended on history's ash heap after intensive media scrutiny of his weekend with Donna Rice.
Still, the pictures I couldn't erase from my mind were of these men's families as they read their statements: Lee Hart's eyes fixed bravely in a straightaway stare, Jill Biden's mouth as carefully set and devoid of emotion as if chiseled in place by a sculptor.
But while I saw the Biden and Hart images on television, I recently encountered personally another congressman who has lately been touched with the finger of scandal and who passionately recalled the pain his family had suffered as a result of media reporting -- in this case, my own writing.
The occasion was a four-hour session on Capitol Hill on harassment of black elected officials. Panelists included former Maryland state senator Clarence Mitchell III, former New York congresswoman Shirley Chisholm and Rep. Harold E. Ford (D-Tenn.), as well as journalists from newspapers and TV. The offended legislator in question was Ford.
In April, Ford was indicted on charges of using his political influence in exchange for loans from banks owned by convicted Tennessee financiers Jake Butcher and C.H. Butcher Jr. Commenting on the indictment at the time, Ford denied any wrongdoing and said the indictment resulted from a vendetta by U.S. Attorney Dan Clancy in Memphis. Ford called Clancy "a liar, a coward and a racist." A few days later, Ford was hit with a gag order that prevented him from further discussing his case publicly.
During the just-concluded four-day Congressional Black Caucus Legislative Weekend, Ford expressed outrage over a column that I had written, especially because I had not interviewed him before commenting on the indictment.
That column, which spoke of the pain blacks felt about the indictment, concluded: "In my opinion, blacks take elected officials' innocence until proven guilty seriously because there are so few black elected officials and many feel one case of corruption will be used against other blacks trying to gain political power. Yet if, like the boy who cried 'wolf,' a black politician who is guilty cries racism, he does us all a disservice. Let's hope Rep. Ford's cries -- and professed innocence -- are real."
Speaking just a few hours before an appeals court lifted the gag order that had kept him silent for five months, Ford said that my column had hurt his family. "My wife had to read it," he shouted angrily. "My son had to read it!"
In that painful instant, I became the symbol of all the unfair media treatment Ford felt he had received, and his emotional outburst evoked great sympathy from the predominantly black audience. Indeed, they seemed to agree with the moderator, Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.), that "members of the press and federal officials have formed an unholy alliance to discredit black leadership."
But politicians have to realize that the problem is more complicated than Fauntroy paints it, and at least part of the explanation lies in the fact that we live in an information age. Indeed, to a certain degree we are all prisoners of technology. When I read reports of plagiarism by Biden or womanizing by Hart or indictments of Ford, I'm responding as both a member of the press and a citizen in the community. And it's true that just as Biden's reputation could be destroyed in two weeks, Ford's could be damaged within a few hours. That puts a lot of responsibility on those of us in the press.
But as the spate of political indiscretions -- alleged and admitted -- bears out, our high-tech age has coincided with the age of boomerang ethics, in which many politicians seem to worry less about ethics than whether an act will come back to haunt them. They all blame different things; Hart blamed the media, Biden blamed himself and Ford blamed the prosecutor and the media. Yet today's politicians have to realize they're under greater scrutiny. Maybe black politicians have a point in saying they're under the microscope more than anyone else. But while that issue won't be settled soon, there's a lesson for all of us to remember in the meantime: Integrity is needed today more than ever -- in politics as well as media.