Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's whopping breach of marital ethics has touched off a curious ethical dilemma in the media world: In reporting the ongoing fallout from Schwarzenegger's affair with the former housekeeper who gave birth to his child, has the press unduly invaded the privacy of Schwarzenegger's one-time paramour?
Some major news organizations have exercised restraint, declining to publish the names, photos or any other revealing details about the housekeeper and her son. Others have confirmed the woman's identity, described her home, and splashed her image across TV screens, front pages and web browsers. At its most lurid, the coverage seems akin to stealing an intimate family photo album and scattering its contents around world.
Has the press gone too far?
Some critics think so: "The housekeeper, who was recently let go by the former California governor, did not ask to be at the center of a white-hot political scandal," writes Howard Kurtz of the Daily Beast, which decided not to identify her. "She has made no statement, filed no lawsuit, trotted out no publicist, sold nothing to the tabloids, made no appearance on 'Oprah.' She had an affair with her boss and got pregnant, but she is as far from a public figure as you can imagine. What gives the media the right to obliterate her privacy?"
Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, which published the woman's name on Wednesday, has an answer.
"Our basic job is to inform readers about news events, so we need a pretty compelling reason NOT to give readers information we think they care about," Keller told the Los Angeles Times' James Rainey. "We're sensitive to privacy issues, but in this case we don't see that compelling reason to keep our readers in the dark ... There's nothing to suggest that reliving the earlier experience is likely to be traumatizing in the sense rape victims describe (she's lived with it--and worked for him--for 10 or 15 years). And the reality is, there is not much privacy left for us to protect."
Russ Stanton, editor of the Los Angeles Times, which broke the Schwarzenegger scandal late Monday night, sees things differently.
"In some circumstances, it might be necessary or appropriate to reveal the identity of a politician's mistress," he told Rainey. "In this situation, we thought it was not. We hewed to the principle of protecting the identify of an innocent child. To have identified the mother would, in effect, have been to identify the child. Different media companies have different standards. We will stick by ours, regardless of what others do."
But the Los Angeles Times appears to be in the minority. CNN made the call to run with the woman's name--Mildred Baena, for the record, as well as her photo following the New York Times report. (Earlier, when the network had TMZ editor Harvey Levin on as a guest, a producer asked him not to identify her, according to Levin.) Other television outlets, including ABC News, CBS News and Fox News, also put Baena on display Wednesday and Thursday, as did various online sources, including the Huffington Post and Yahoo!.
The Associated Press published Baena's name only after it had been floated by multiple news outlets. "The AP has not independently verified that she is the mother of Schwarzenegger's child," the wire noted in a report Thursday.
"We decided to use the name because the story did not involve a sex crime but what appears to be a voluntary relationship with a public figure," AP managing editor Lou Ferrara told The Cutline. "The name is an important fact worthy of knowing."
The Cutline's decision to name Baena also was based on the volume of reports that had already done so. As of the time of this posting, several hours after first contacting seven mainstream news outlets for comment, we were still awaiting statements from ABC, CBS, CNN, the Huffington Post, and the Washington Post.
This is all to say nothing of celebrity gossip sites like Radar Online and TMZ, which were among the first to have a field day with Baena's MySpace photos. (Radar was the first to report her name, according to the AP.) And then, of course, there are the ever-yellow New York tabloids, both of which featured Baena on their Thursday covers.
"The cover of today's Post is lurid and mean-spirited," wrote Capital New York's Tom McGeveran today in his daily dissection of the rival tabs. "A candid photo of Baena, who is not pictured in full makeup at an Oprah Winfrey goodbye-special taping the way Maria Shriver was, but who's instead cutting the cake at a baby shower in a floral dress, with a wide, kind smile across her face, holding a blue balloon, is paired with a large red callout box with giant knockout-white type that reads 'ARNIE LOVE CHILD.' An arrow actually points to Baena's abdomen."
That child, who is now said to be around 14, remains shielded from the public eye--in the coverage of his mother, the adolescent's face has been appropriately obscured.
"We don't publish names of minors and we don't show their pictures either, without being blurred. These are children who deserve to be protected, even if others don't," said Fox News VP Michael Clemente. (As for the network's guidelines on Baena, Clemente concurred with the Times' Keller: "In this case, what happened many years ago does not seem to be something anyone is hiding from now.")