When rumors erupted on the Internet that John Kerry had cheated on his wife, the mainstream media dithered over whether to cover it. Average news consumers could be forgiven if they didn't quite understand the rules in play. The old rules have broken down, and no amount of hand wringing can bring them back. What reporters and editors can do, though, is level with their customers.
The truth is that the kind of rumors swirling around Kerry would not have been reported 10 or 15 years ago. Instead, they would have been faxed around the Beltway, been the subject of newsroom gossip, and lurked just offstage in every campaign story or interview. That world is obviously gone, the crinkled "hot fax" story replaced by Matt Drudge and millions of eyeballs a day.
But still lurking is the unofficial double standard for reporting on questions of marital fidelity. Consciously or not, much of the media lump liberal politicians in the pro-adultery camp, while conservatives get the anti-adultery tag. What this means is that a conservative is automatically viewed as having a more newsworthy private life. It has to square with his pronouncements on "family values," or he will be judged morally inconsistent, and this inconsistency is an issue that will be brought to the attention of voters.
This is part of the de facto bargain the media have struck with politicians, particularly in election years: We will be your conduit to project whatever image you choose, but you only get one image. Try to complicate it -- or double-cross us -- and the deal is off. Kerry, as a liberal, did not trigger the media's higher level of scrutiny during his career or campaign. Fair enough, but only if everyone knows the score.