AN OLD NEWSPAPER warrior, A. H. Raskin of The New York Times, once described his travels with presidential candidate Estes Kefauver in the 1950s. The campaign party checked into a New Jersey hotel one evening and, by Raskin's account, overheard the candidate giving instructions to a desk clerk:
"Send up whiskey and women in that order."
The story never appeared in The New York Times, said Raskin, because things of that sort were considered unfit to print. He was quite right. Only scandal sheets, such as "Hollywood Confidential," trafficked in sexual rumor and innuendo in those days and when they lost libel judgments right thinking journalists cheered. The mainstream press, in matters of sex and other personal behavior, observed what Eugene Meyer, the founder of the modern Washington Post, once called the "decencies obligatory upon a private gentleman." He might blush at the changes time has wrought.
At the Safeway recently, I picked up a weekly newspaper and learned all manner of pseudo-salacious things. Princess Diana was reported to have acquired a boyfriend out of boredom with her "stuffy" husband, Prince Charles. Michael Jackson, the singer, had been chastised by the Jehovah's Witness sect for bad behavior. There was a long and sympathetic article on the bastard children of Mick Jagger, Farrah Fawcett, Mia Farrow and Goldie Hawn and yet another on the personal financial affairs of such celebrities as Dan Rather.
The weekly is called The Star. It inspired me to seek out news of sex and sin in the "serious press," in the news magazines and political journals and in the broadcasts of television and radio. The search was fruitful.
There were many articles and television news specials on Gary Hart and his presumed paramour, Donna Rice. Their saga, which may become a two-hour movie on ABC television next year, competed for popular attention with accounts of the tribulations and sexual proclivities of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker. Several newspapers published interviews with Massachusetts congressman Barney Frank on the subject of his homosexuality. The sexual infidelities of a midwestern governor were newsworthy for a couple of days. Conductor Leonard Bernstein's alcoholism and bisexual appetites were treated in leading journals. Congresswoman Patricia Schroeder, a potential presidential candidate, was asked if she had ever committed adultery. She replied in the negative. The mother of two of Mick Jagger's children denied a report that she had had her breasts surgically "realigned." One of the family magazines, People, had an interesting piece entitled "Teen Sex, How often they do it, how little they tell."Even the Reader's Digest succumbed: "Sex Secrets Everyone Should Know".
The AIDS plague, as we have all observed, has been a popular journalistic subject all summer, with particular emphasis on the dangers of oral and anal sex. Newsweek devoted much of a recent issue to the subject and published the photographs of 301 victims of the disease. Earlier in the season the Today show presented a step-by-step description of the proper use of condoms for "safe sex" and there were news accounts of a helpful Episcopal priest who distributed the devices to his congregation. This news was virtually overshadowed by the revelation in People magazine that in 16 years of marriage to Dylan Thomas his wife Caitlin had never experienced an orgasm.
From all this it is quite obvious that the mass media in the 1980s are not in the least squeamish about publishing sexual material that in the past would have been regarded as either tasteless or pornographic. It is also obvious that the media recognize no general "right of privacy." If the President has an intestinal polyp, the problem will be described in relentless detail. If Ernest Hemingway has a transvestite son, we will learn all about it. If a congressman (John Jenrette) engages in a sexual act with his wife on the Capitol steps, that news will be shared with our readers. If an athlete or a movie star or a politician is afflicted with alcoholism, drug addiction or AIDS, we will satisfy the public's imaginary "right to know".
Reportage in this genre -- with one recent exception -- has become so commonplace as to be empty of significant controversy. The exception was the Hart-Rice tale which Raskin, several of his New York Times colleagues and other critics denounced as "gutter journalism." Why this particular story of a liaison should have aroused controversy in light of the media's standard treatment of sexual materials is something of a mystery in itself. Perhaps it is because no one really cares whether Goldie Hawn produces illegitimate children whereas the Hart-Rice story had consequences: Hart withdrew his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination.
In any case, the story provoked internal debate in the newsrooms of many newspapers including The Washington Post. My God, people asked, are there no limits? Will surveillance teams now be put on the trail of every politician? If an anti-abortion candidate had undergone an abortion in her youth, would we print the fact and accuse her of hypocricy? Would we expose the spouse of some candidate or public figure as a drug addict or alcoholic? What about the children of prominent figures? And if things are really getting out of hand should not the media, collectively, adopt some rules or standards to define those things that are fit to print?
Perhaps they should, but it won't happen -- for a variety of reasons. The first is that "journalism" in our time is an amorphous amalgamation of thousands of enterprises, embracing everything from the Christian Science Monitor to Screw magazine. Their disparate purposes and values do not and will never coincide. Moreover, no rule making authorities, no professional societies or associations exist to define good or bad journalism or to punish the miscreants of the trade. Efforts in this country to install a permanent National News Council controlled by the media industry have failed, as have Third World efforts to muzzle and censor the Western press through a "New World Information Order" that would codify "appropriate criteria to govern truly objective news selection."
The response of editors and publishers to such proposals has been uniform: "No one is going to tell me what to print." The idea of a government agency setting the rules is of course unthinkable in media circles.
Another and equally powerful reason that the media are unlikely ever to return to Puritan standards of taste is that we have become different people. Our notions of what is fit to print have changed dramatically over the past 25 years because something important happened to our society: We experienced a revolution in popular culture in the 1960s.
The historian, Theodore Roszak, looked around him at the end of that decade and recorded this impression:
"It would hardly seem an exaggeration to call what we see arising among the young a 'counter culture': meaning, a culture so radically disaffiliated from the mainstream assumptions of our society that it scarcely looks to many as a culture at all but takes on the alarming appearance of a barbarian intrusion."
It was a "culture" intended to shock and repudiate the "system" and all the "bourgeois values" of middle-class America from whence these cultural revolutionaries sprang. They were the new hedonists, inventors of outrageous styles of dress and hygiene, sexual behavior, political thought, musical, artistic and journalistic expressions and creators of new markets for drugs. Their subversive assaults on the "establishment" failed to bring it down and in due course they were co-opted into the embrace of the larger society. But their impact on the popular culture was profound.
Major commercial enterprises were created to market "barbarian" artifacts of the '60s -- designer jeans, designer drugs, rock music, the "alternative" press. A considerable pornography industry arose. "Dirty movies" came to the neighborhood theater, cable television, the local video shop and hotel and motel chains all across the country. Magazines of the Playboy/Hustler variety proliferated on the news stands. Historians and biographers explored the sexuality of their subjects, as do some of the authors of contemporary newspaper comic strips.
And throughout society, sexual attitudes and behavior genuinely changed. Pre-marital "tryouts" and extra-marital relationships became commonplace. Homosexuals asserted their identities. Illegitimate birth rates, teenage pregnancy rates, venereal disease rates and divorce rates all soared. The AIDs epidemic occurred.
The mass media record these developments because they are a significant part of the history of our time, a history that could not be recorded under "pre-revolutionary" concepts of what is fit to print. This newspaper's style book declares its respect for "taste and decency (while) understanding that society's concepts of taste and decency are constantly changing. A word offensive to the last generation can be part of the next generation's common vocabulary."
Some lament the passing of those old "decencies obligatory upon a private gentleman." They lament the loss of personal privacy by the rich and famous and, in many cases, by the common man. But it will take a counter revolution in the popular culture to reverse these trends in journalism and nothing of the sort is in the cards.
Will someone open a press conference in 1989 with the question: "Mr. (or Madame) President, did you ever commit adultery and if so how often and with whom ?"
Don't bet the ranch against it.
Richard Harwood is a deputy managing editor of The Washington Post.