Attack on candidate’s wife should trigger a media ethics check-up

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Is Donald Trump setting up the media to investigate Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s wife, Heidi, by suggesting she has a secret?

On Tuesday, Trump sent out a tweet and immediately pulled it back. In typical Trump fashion, he didn’t apologize. Later, he stirred the pot again by backing up the deleted tweet with taunting rhetoric.Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 11.39.15 AM

The tweet came after a political action group supporting Cruz ran an ad of Trump’s current wife, Melania, naked on a bed. The photo is 15 years old. The ad suggested that you wouldn’t want her as first lady.

“Be careful, Lyin’ Ted or I will spill the beans on your wife,” Trump retorted upon seeing the ad. Within seven seconds he deleted the tweet from public view, which is never the case since everything lives forever online. Trump knows that.

The response from Sen. Ted Cruz was immediate and direct:Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 11.43.24 AM

 

Given this political campaign season and the way Trump has managed to manipulate the media into hanging on his every word, it sounded to me like he was baiting the media to take this story and go with it.

The Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, Politico as well as the major networks obliged. As the Post noted, Heidi Cruz’s episodes of depression, and one in particular, already have been reported. So, was Trump alluding to that or was he prodding the press to dig deeper?

Should the media make Trump’s cause its own?

Candidate’s wives and their personal lives and struggles have always been fair game on the road to the White House and beyond. From Mary Todd Lincoln to Mamie Eisenhower and Betty Ford to the exploits of George W. Bush’s daughters, all family members are fair game. (Right, Billy Carter?) But there is something particularly manipulative about Trump’s approach with the taunts to Ted Cruz on Twitter. Of course, one might successful argue that depicting Trump’s wife in a nude photo isn’t appropriate either and drags her past into public scrutiny unfairly. But, a counterargument is that posing nude in a magazine does have the same invasiveness as sharing having your medical records shared with the public.

Vice presidential candidate Thomas Eagleton stepped down as George McGovern’s running mate in 1972 when he confessed to having bouts of depression and using electroshock therapy. Some contend that cost McGovern support when he needed it most. Depression affects one in 10 Americans, according to the Anxiety Association of America. That’s not exactly riveting news these days. We’ve advanced our medicine since then. And, we’ve become more accepting of the illness.

Media ethics suggest there is a requirement to delicately balance the search for truth with the harm that’s caused in that pursuit.

Assuming we agree that it’s fair to look into the past of candidate’s wives, the reporting would be well served by following the strictest principles of conduct that are outlined in a number of media codes.

The Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists implores journalists to treat their subjects, private or public figures, as deserving of respect. To accomplish this, the press needs to think about balancing the public’s need to have personal information about Mrs. Cruz against the potential harm or discomfort that it may cause. Pursuing the news is a mission of the news media but is not an open door for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 11.56.39 AM

Yes, Heidi Cruz is at least a public figure in legal, privacy terms. But, that’s not the moral standards that direct the press. Even if it were, limits should be in place. Compassion still needs to be a hallmark of reporting on these personal issues. Sensitivity should be invoked.

Above all, the press has an obligation to weigh the consequences of its reporting. Pandering to the curiosity that Trump is trying to generate is not an acceptable, ethical practice.

I’m not suggesting the press should turn a blind eye to the story. But, there is an obligation to advance professional, moral standards and understand that in chasing this story there is an undeniable obligation to minimize the harm it does to those in the story.

The press should understand that in doing so, it must do it fairly and graciously and not take its cues from Trump.

 

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