Public Figures Have Yet to Learn an Important Lesson about their Personal Lives

Seven years ago today, New Jersey Governor Jim McGreevey made international news when he announced that he was gay, had engaged in an extramarital affair and was resigning as the state’s chief executive.

Since then, it seems that America’s politicians have been playing a game of Can You Top This?

  • Elliot Spitzer resigned as Governor of New York after reports surfaced that he had patronized a prostitution service.
  • South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford went AWOL for a few days, but managed to keep his job, even after acknowledging that he had been in Argentina visiting a woman with whom he was having an affair.
  • John Edwards, after initially denying allegations that he had an affair and a child with a woman working on his presidential campaign, confirmed both allegations, which occurred while his wife was dying of cancer.
  • A few months after concluding his second term as Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger confessed to his wife, Maria Shriver, that he had fathered a son with the couple’s housekeeper 14 years ago.
  • More recently, New York Congressman Anthony Weiner resigned after he admitted sending women sexually explicit pictures over the Internet.
  • In New Jersey this summer, Cumberland County Freeholder Lou Magazzu resigned under somewhat similar circumstances – taking nude pictures of himself and sending them to a woman online.

The list goes on and on, and in all likelihood it will continue to do so, adding fuel to the widespread perception that the political world is populated by liars, crooks, and thieves. In reality, however, the political world is just reflection of the world in which all of us live. The good, the bad and the ugly inhabit our world, just as they inhabit the world of politics. And in both worlds, we hear more often about the bad and the ugly, even if those traits are in the minority.

The nature of the news business dictates that, when public figures go to work every day and do their jobs well, it’s not a story. But if they send a racy photo over the Internet, take off to South America for a fling with another woman, or father a baby with a housekeeper, they are likely to find their names in the headlines.

What can we learn from this?

Number one, everyone – not just public figures – needs to realize that we live in an era in which privacy and secrets have all but disappeared. This should be a no-brainer, given the Internet, social networks and camera phones that can capture video and post it to YouTube in a matter of seconds. Nevertheless, today’s public figures continue to get into trouble, perhaps because they don’t understand the intricacies of cyberspace or they are incredibly bold or just plain stupid.

But the debate really should not be about keeping one’s unsavory activities discreet. There’s an old guideline about talking to reporters that has some wider applications today: If you don’t want to see something in a news report, don’t say it — either on or off-the-record. Likewise, if you don’t want to be the focus of a career-ending news story, don’t do something that would warrant such a story.

In a 2006 study I conducted about the legitimacy of the media exposing the foibles of public figures in their personal lives, I somewhat idealistically suggested that the rise of the Internet and the disappearance of privacy would lead to fewer indiscretions once public figures realized that whatever they did was likely to become public knowledge.

Five years later, it appears that quite a few public figures have yet to learn this lesson.

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