Tuesday, February 09, 2010

On Adam Giambrone, morality vs. privacy, and the media as gatekeeper

Reading the Toronto Star’s stunning tabloidesque story this morning that may doom Adam Giambrone’s Toronto mayoral bid in its infancy, a number of thoughts come to mind around just how much we have a right to know about the private lives of politicians, whether such considerations should be relevant to our voting decisions, and the powerful role the media plays in deciding what is “newsworthy” and what isn’t.

Myself, I wasn’t going to vote for Giambrone anyways, so these revelations don’t change that. His political experience, and inexperience, were enough for me to make that decision. Frankly, I’ve been underwhelmed, if not very disappointed, by what I’ve seen from all the mayoral candidates so far.

Still, academically-speaking, are the revelations in the Diebel story relevant, do we have a right to know? That’s a tough one. I think politicians are entitled to a private life. As long as it doesn’t impact or interfere with their jobs, as long as it’s between consenting adults and doesn’t break laws, then it’s not relevant.

Maxime Bernier and Julie Couillard was relevant because of a) her potential ties to organized crime, and b) he left confidential documents at his apartment. Elliott Spitzer was relevant because prostitution is illegal. Mark Sanford was relevant because he traveled on government funds, was absent from his job, and his staff lied to the media.

At first blush, the Giambrone story does appear to pass this relevancy test, if only barely: he shared confidential information with his mistress, Kristen Lucas, about the upcoming TTC fare hike. Absent that one minor breach (that we know about), I’d say this affair concerns only Giambrone and the two women involved, Lucas and his partner, Sarah McQuarrie.

The other question that speaks to relevancy is honesty. We have two very divergent descriptions of the relationship from Lucas and Giambrone. We’ll see in the fullness of time which one is being more honest here. But for Giambrone, full disclosure and honesty up front is the only way to get through this (if he even can). Get caught short later and it’s definitely over. But the two accounts do strain credulity. Lucas alleges a sexual affair. Giambrone alleges the relationship was only “text messages and conversations in public places only.” If that’s really the case, one wonders just what he’s apologizing for.

Whether such revelations are relevant or not though, and whether or not they should have gone public in the first place, the fact is voters will decide for themselves what they consider relevant, and what they will base their voting decision on. While I’d question whether we truly should know these sorts of things about politicians, the fact is once known they absolutely will impact my voting decision. It speaks to character and integrity. I don’t expect politicians to be perfect. But if someone is dishonest or duplicitous in their personal lives, it does make me question their fitness to make good decisions in the public interest.

Which brings me to the media. Despite the rising prominence of new media and blogging, by and large it’s still the mainstream media that act as gatekeepers, deciding what they feel we have a right to know about the public lives of politicians, and what we don’t.

And make no mistake, they are making these calls regularly. There’s one major affair in Ottawa that, although it’s widely known in political and media circles, the media has made a conscious decision not to report. It could well be career-ending but, although there could be incidents of the matter crossing into the job performance area, the media collectively have decided it’s a private matter that just isn’t news, so it goes unreported.

So when I read stories like the Giambrone one it makes me wonder just what criteria the media use to make these decisions to report or not. Is it better to just have everything out there and let the chips fall where they may, letting the people decide relevancy for themselves instead of the media? Or should we trust the media to continue making these calls on our behalf?

Certainty, the media has been trending more and more towards publish it all over the years. There was a time when private was decidedly private. The obvious example was the lack of coverage of John F. Kennedy’s many affairs back in the day. The media regularly turned a blind eye to that sort of thing here too for many years. Gradually, that began to change. I think the emergence of a less chummy, more professional relationship between the media and those they cover was one factor. The shortened news cycle probably another.

Myself, I think such stories often aren’t news and I don’t really need to know, as long as it doesn’t impact job performance, involve illegality or use of public resources. But I also don’t like the media picking and choosing what it thinks I should know about, and what I shouldn’t. Especially when its done without transparency, seemingly by arbitrary or unknown standards.

While such coverage may be tabloidesque, marginally relevant and have no bearing on my voting intention, frankly, I think I’d rather make that decision for myself.

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jmburton said...

Adam Giambrone has had big ambition for a long time. He then has a dalliance and leaves a trail?

As a former political staffer (and lifelong political activist) who buried bodies and/or held the light for others... the sheer incompetence of his handling of this causes me substantial pause.

Even if he was only having a texting (or sexting) relationship - the fact that he didn't take more care to insulate himself is problematic. Especially for a guy who launched his electoral bid with a youtube video to show how hip he was to new media.

In political parlance (and marketing) we call this message dissonance. I expect it will sink Giambrone's bid for mayor this time. In 1-2-4 years, he'll be back and will be forgiven.

Not that my opinion really matters - I live in the prairies.

Anonymous said...

I understood she was an intern, not a "mistress." That makes it relevant.

If he can't handle his family life, let alone a transit system, why should we trust him with handling a city?

I'd rather vote for Smitherman. No deception on his part, and IMHO a great track record.

ygkpd said...

Not surprising. The Star, as well as the Globe, has been on a bit of a campaign lately to hammer NDP support within Toronto - which was clearly resurgent in the middle years of this past decade - while also shitting all over the city's unions. It's (sadly) classic.

Jeff said...

Noronic, I've read nothing that would indicate she was an intern in his office. The Star story that interviews her makes no mention of that, and surely it it were true, it would have, because that would be undeniably relevant. Do you have a link/source? Otherwise I'm not inclined to believe that.

Gauntlet said...

The suggestion that people are always better off with more information is pretty easily disproved. People are irrational. We put too much emphasis on downsides.

Not that it's a reason not to publish something. But if you're on the border between "this is news" and "this is private", I don't think you can responsibly go to "let people decide for themselves" as a way to break the tie.

Rotterdam said...

This girl got stiffed because of her age. The political optics were not as good as Adams other "partner".
She got her revenge.

Jennifer Smith said...

Does this mean that you think that the other "major affair" you mentioned should also be revealed in the media? Do you think it would be if it was a man? And what about a certain closeted cabinet minister - should he be outed to the general public?

I think I'm happier with your relevancy test and leaving it there. I don't buy all this business about character and integrity, though. History is full of great leaders who had profound personal failings, and it didn't seem to affect their professional or political integrity one whit.

(and now he's quit. sigh...)

Jeff said...


On the Ottawa affair, I'd say it shouldn't be reported, were it not for (again, rumours) that one of those involved did improperly use the powers of their job in relation to the matter. In my view, there are alleged actions that do meet the relevancy test.

As for closeted politicians, ministers or otherwise, I see no reason for them to be outed if it doesn't meet the relevancy test.

Once private information about someone is out there though, each person will make their own judgement, rightly or wrongly, on the character question. It may not dissuade me from voting for someone, but it is one factor, among many, I'd consider.

Jason, I'm sympathetic to the people aren't always better off with more information argument, I've become cynical enough to think people don't always make the best decisions. The question is, who decides what we should know, and what are their criteria? I have trouble with letting others make that call for me.

Rotterdam said...

If you are a politition, and caught with hanky-panky. Its irrelevant, however the media is looking for ways that it may be relevant, as BCer alludes to.
Watch NY Governor Patterson, state Democrat's are begging him to leave, because he has more in the closet.

Moral- best to remain clean.