Public Editor

Publishing sexual texts draws a mixed response from readers

Missouri House

On May 14, The Kansas City Star published a story that would have an immediate effect on Missouri government: House Speaker John Diehl had been engaged in a sexually tinged relationship with a college freshman in a capitol internship program.

The Star published screen shots of sexual smartphone text messages between Diehl and the intern, and Diehl acknowledged they were authentic. He resigned the next day, saying, “It was wrong, and I am truly sorry.”

Some readers applauded the publishing of the story. “A strong democracy requires a strong, vigilant independent media,” commented one on Facebook.

One caller pronounced the coverage “courageous,” and noted that reporter Jason Hancock is “probably making people nervous in Jefferson City, and that’s what a reporter should be doing.”

But I heard more voices critical than complimentary. Elaine Creaden was one who objected to the story, particularly its reproducing the text messages in legible form:

(I am) irate over the smut on Page One. No one needed to read that email garbage, and I am so surprised that The Star would print something like that. I just renewed my subscription, and I love to read newspapers…. But now and again The Star reads like The Globe (which I don’t read, but see the front page at the store). How can a prize-winning paper be so obviously prurient? I don’t like Missouri or Kansas Republicans either, but such degrading behavior should be beyond the scope of a major newspaper. Spare me.

Charles Frodsham made a similar point, focusing on the privacy of the people involved:

I think I would categorize the piece about Missouri House Speaker Diehl as tabloid journalism (and maybe even tabloid journalism at its most sensational). Was there really any news value in revealing the dialogue in private texts between two people that was certainly not meant for public consumption? … If the goal of The Kansas City Star was to embarrass the legislator or his family, or even the young lady in question, the paper has probably succeeded. Do you see any virtue in that?

I have no doubt that both Diehl and the intern felt great chagrin at their texts’ becoming public. I would also argue that a 19-year-old woman shouldn’t be held to the same standards as a married 49-year-old public official in one of the most powerful offices in the state. It was the right decision for The Star not to name her (though her name appeared in subsequent coverage after she made a public statement).

Should it have been reported at all? I don’t like to compare how different news events were covered, as no two situations can ever be equivalent.

But I can’t deny one valid point I read over and over, from self-described conservatives and liberals alike: What did those who say The Star erred in publishing the story think about the revelation of Bill Clinton’s affair with intern Monica Lewinsky in the mid-1990s? Can the critics of Clinton who decried his abuse of power over a much younger woman say there’s any substantive difference here, other than the level of the elected office?

Diehl’s immediate resignation was the kind of realpolitik move that avoids the political meltdown of Bill Clinton’s stonewalling. Whether you think it was necessary or not boils down to your opinion about a 49-year-old public servant having an improper relationship with a teenage intern.

To reach Derek Donovan, call 816-234-4487 weekday mornings or email publiceditor@kcstar.com.

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