Line in the Sand: Are Politicians Entitled to Privacy?
Author: Barry Kaufman & Courtney Hampson | Photographer: Photography by Anne
If I can begin with a digression, I’d like to address some libelous remarks made by C-Ham last month. Am I a “Belieber?” No. I just merely accept the fact that I, like everyone reading this, was a raging moron at 19 years old. If you had plied me with millions of dollars and zero oversight at 19, I would be right there in the drag-racing, stupid-hat-wearing camp. And so would many of you out there. I will, however, own up to her comments that I think French fries are better than tater tots. You are free to disagree with me; just know that they haven’t invented a word for how wrong you are.
Onto the subject at hand…
Well no one said this was going to be easy.
When the topic of the Island Packet (among others) airing out Andy Patrick’s allegedly dirty laundry came up for debate, I jumped on it. I’ve never worked for the Packet, but I’ve worked in a newsroom, and I felt this would be an easy win for me. After all, the First Amendment is a hell of a trump card, even if journalists have been accused of hiding behind it. Yeah, it’s really horrific stuff that’s being put out there about another human being, but sunshine is the best disinfectant; and if something is being concealed, it’s the journalist’s Founding Father-given right, nay duty, to drag it out into the light.
Not to mention that journalism is a thankless job. The pay is lousy, the hours suck, and the payoff is that most people will hate you for doing it. Like, really hate you. After I left newspapers, my parting gift was credit card debt, a sudden appreciation for not working until 10 p.m. Christmas Eve, and a string of profanity-riddled Facebook messages from irate readers telling me, among other things, how much I sucked, how much everything I did sucked, and how much I will always continue to suck. As a journalist (or as close as I ever was to one), you just shrug it off because it comes with the territory.
So I came into this with the First Amendment card as my right Bauer and the Pity the Poor Journalist card as my left. Assuming everyone else was playing euchre, I felt like this debate was in the bag. The fourth estate was here to kick ass and chew bubble gum, and I was all out of bubble gum.
Then I read this quote from Patrick. In a phone interview with the Packet, he said, “My children don’t deserve to go to school and get asked questions based on one-sided allegations against their father.”
And just… damn. I have to argue with that. Again, no one said this was going to be easy.
As a father, it’s hard to defend a practice that leads another father to say that, regardless of what he may or may not have done to his family or with his money (or other peoples’ money as the case allegedly may be). It’s hard to think about the kids who get caught in the crossfire when journalistic righteousness meets governmental shenanigans. These are real people, and the consequences behind every word written about them echoes on. And whether you believe it or not, journalists get that. It weighs on them with every column inch they fill.
Look, the field of journalism doesn’t grow a lot of daisies. But it’s an important field. In that same Packet story, Patrick also said, “This is a private matter that is playing itself out in public only because I’m a public official.” And unfortunately for Mr. Patrick, that is exactly the case.
It’s playing out in public because the public pays the salaries of elected officials. It’s playing out because, true or not, these things are out there in the public record, and it would be a disservice to the public if they weren’t reported. It’s playing out because if these things are true, and again I’m not saying they are, wouldn’t the public rather know that about someone they’re paying? I used the word “public” about a billion times in this paragraph. Just know I’m talking about you. Wouldn’t you rather know?
Maybe you know Patrick personally. It’s a small island where he may or may not live; maybe he’s a friend of yours. I don’t know Andy Patrick. I have nothing against him, but as a taxpayer, I have a vested interest in knowing what kind of guy he is. The Secret Service probably vetted him pretty darn well, I’d imagine, but that doesn’t mean he gets a free pass for life. So I count on the journalists of the world to fill in the gaps for me.
And what they found, if it’s true, is fairly damning. For the lawyers in the crowd I’ll repeat: if it’s true.
If Patrick were not an elected official, this would absolutely be the scummiest smear job ever perpetrated. If the papers publicized your neighbor’s divorce, you’d be appalled. But he’s not just a neighbor; he’s a state representative, and so the manner in which he conducts his affairs has a bearing on the public interest. A newspaper’s job is to keep the public informed (also, to keep printing “Snuffy Smith” even though it hasn’t been funny for 80 years).
So the journalists continue at their task, digging away even though what they find is almost never pretty, and they’re usually despised for it. And the public keeps on despising them for it, even though their best interests are at stake. Remember the end of Dark Knight? Pretty much the same concept.
I, for one, don’t want to be the one to tell the journalists to stop. Because as soon as we start dictating what they can and can’t write, blog or Tweet, our free press withers and dies. And I’m pretty sure the Founding Fathers would have something to say about that, since their first order of business was giving them something to hide behind.
It still doesn’t excuse Snuffy Smith, but it maybe gives them a pass to keep bringing us the news we need to know. To those who get hurt along the way, just know these journalists aren’t monsters. Monsters get paid better.
Two issues in, and already Barry is pulling the free press card. Bold move my friend. Bold move. You should have held that one for when you really get in a pickle and people start writing letters to the editor complaining about you. (That’s how we lost the last guy; let’s call him Spank.)
The right to freedom of the press guaranteed by the first amendment is not very different from the right to freedom of speech. It allows individuals to express themselves through publication and dissemination. In laymen’s terms, Barry and I can share our opinions (with some caveats like slander et al) on these pages every month, and even if you disagree, you can do nothing about it, except state yours. It is part of the constitutional protection of freedom of expression. It does not afford members of the media any special rights or privileges not afforded to citizens in general. So, is it really a sound defense in this case?
This month we tackle the issue of SC State Representative Andy Patrick’s family court divorce documents going viral. I’m not going to argue that the publication (rhymes with racket) who posted all of the documents is wrong for posting them. That is their right. The reason they posted the documents is because they want to sell papers, and if we’ve learned anything in this digital reality-TV based age, people gobble that crap up. We are a notoriously curious society hyper-interested in everyone else’s business; so if it sells paper and drives web traffic, more power to you. My argument is why do we care?
Once Patrick’s documents were unsealed (ah, the plot thickens), they suddenly became a lot more interesting. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might argue collusion that Andy Patrick’s divorce records were sealed to begin with. Think about it.
If you had all the time in the world, you could login to the Beaufort County Fourteenth Judicial Circuit Court website and search for court records to your heart’s delight. It’s all there for the perusing. (Fathers of teenage daughter’s talking about dating, take note.) Traffic tickets. Reckless driving. Liens. Foreclosures. Divorces. You name it. If you can weed your way through all of the legal mumbo jumbo, I imagine it makes for good reading. But, who has the time? And, why do you care?
I barely have time to write this column—nary a nanosecond to spare these days. So how in the world could I make the time to read reams of Andy Patrick’s divorce papers and associated arguments?
I imagine if you won the lottery and are just spending your time sipping sweet tea on your front porch, you could keep yourself quite occupied. But, for the other 99.9 percent of us who have jobs and a life, is this really where we want to focus our time?
The recent Patrick headlines use scary acronyms like FBI, CIA, and USSS to lure us in. In fact, Patrick was a Secret Service agent, so if the soon-to-be-ex-Mrs. Patrick is telling all, common sense would lead me to believe that she has some pretty juicy tidbits of information she could share; and the acronym brigade is making sure she isn’t breaching any breachable information. Because guess what, people? There is some information we aren’t privy to, and I’m okay with that.
A publication could take anybody’s story and print it. In fact, if anyone out there is willing to share with me all the gory details of your divorce, shoot me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will make sure they get published.