How much of a private life should a public figure be allowed to have? I ask not because I think I have a better answer than everybody else but because it’s an important question that’s more urgent to discuss than it ever was. By now, most of you probably know the story of Allen County Republican Chairman Steve Shine (here are The News-Sentinel version and The Journal Gazette one). About all we know for sure, based on the published accounts, is that Shine and his wife had an argument or a confrontation (depending on how strongly you want to word it), police were called, and police said Shine tried to keep his wife from leaving by yanking the key out of the car but ended up breaking it off in the ignition.
That’s not much of a story, and all we can even infer from it is that there is some tension in that household and some anger that has to be worked through. If Shine were not a public figure, such a story would have never seen the light of day. Even stories involving actual domestic battery aren’t usually considered newsworthy — there are, sadly, just too many of them. But Shine is a public figure, so now his family has to work out a private matter with the added burden of public scrutiny.
Does this go too far in subjecting a public figures to standards most people don’t have to face? Sometimes the answer is easy. A police chief cited for DUI is justifiable Page 1 news, even though most DUIs don’t even make the paper. But a school principal doesn’t deserve to be on the evening news for a too-tall-grass citation any more than anybody else does. Sometimes, as in this case, we just have to let our instincts tell us if disclosure goes too far. My instinct gives me a creepy feeling in such cases, as it did for this story. I think it’s a story the press did partly just because it could and partly because it feared a charge of cover-up if it did not report it.
I hope others who are trying to ask themselves the question do it honestly, without regard to their political affiliation and no matter what they might personally think of Shine. Whatever standards are set for him have to hold for all other public figures, too. And if we leave people in the spotlight no zone of privacy, we should not be terribly surprised if fewer and fewer people seek the scrutiny that comes with public service.
If you’ve followed this story in the blogosphere, you will have noticed a certain lack of restraint in the coverage and, in some cases, undisguised glee at Shine’s unwanted publicity. This is the future. The mainstream media, for all their faults and despite making the wrong call sometimes, at least agonize over where the line should be drawn. We are in an era where no holds are barred. What can be out there will get out there. Everyone should at least think about this a little. Next time around, it might be your privacy on the line.
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