The news of former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s extra-marital tryst – and the child born as a result of the affair – has brought up questions about how news outlets should handle reporting on the people who end up being “collateral damage” in gossip stories, and to what degree these individuals’ identities should be considered relevant and newsworthy.
Already, the decision to name and publish photographs of former Schwarzenegger family housekeeper Mildred “Patty” Baena has inspired its fair share of controversy. TMZ founder Harvey Levin, for instance, publicly took CNN to task for, as Levin saw it, holding a hypocritical, shifting stance on naming Baena. Gawker also faced criticism (chronicled in this blog post from The LA Times – the publication which originally broke news of the affair) for having initially named another, unrelated woman as Schwarzenegger’s “baby mama.” Gawker has since issued a retraction for that story, admitting and explaining its mistake.
But the debate surrounding Baena was relatively mild and short-lived. After all, this was a grown woman, and a willing accomplice in something upon which society generally frowns – sleeping with a married man. The public and certain big names within the media – like, say, the shy and withdrawing Glenn Beck – can choose to insult her, either based on her actions or her physical appearance, but, at the end of the day, no matter how unwarranted, irrelevant, mean-spirited or misguided the attacks on Baena, she’s an adult, and is likely equipped to cope with the criticism. Besides, by willfully engaging in an affair with an extremely famous married man (while keeping in mind the extremely disproportionate balance of power at play in this affair) and agreeing to keep the affair and resulting child a secret from the man’s wife while remaining in the couple’s employ and family home for over a decade effectively, as I see it, renders Baena a public figure. She’s fair game for news reports, and there’s no compelling reason that would convince me, as a media blogger, to shield her identity or her actions from the public.
Then there’s the matter of her child, who remains unnamed by the media.
…Which is not to say that certain outlets haven’t found their own creative nicknames for the suddenly famous preteen. The Daily, for instance, published a story today – titled “Conan Jr. the beer-barian” – about the boy’s MySpace profile, immediately inspiring questions like “Why?” and also “MySpace?” The post shows the boy as an aggressively normal American teen, albeit with one with an apparent aversion to spellcheck.
“I have the gayest picture ever and I dont know how to chang [sic] it,” writes the boy. And that picture, showing the boy holding up a can of the world’s finest beer, is very much included in the post. Sure, the kid’s face is blurred out, but his identity is shielded in the same manner Lil’ Kim’s famous purple pasty can be said to have covered her breast. (Look, we’re talking about MySpace here. I’m feeling retro.) Which is to say: Not really very much at all.
The post’s author, Hunter Walker, shared additional information from the boy’s MySpace profile on his personal Tumblr, adding the following:
I’m pretty different from others, but when you get to know me i’m a pretty chill kid. I can’t say i’m good at skating but i like to ride. Don’t judge me by how i look, learn me then you’ll see im not so bad.
Neither post linked back to the boy’s MySpace profile.
I reached out to Hunter for some insight into what went into publishing these posts, but didn’t receive a response in time for publication.
The question here isn’t whether or not news organizations should reveal the identity of children related to a major news story – I’ll leave that for individual bloggers and journalists to figure out for themselves, and I don’t have anything near the bloated self of self-importance required to issue a mandate for all publications to follow. Nor is this a hit piece on Hunter, whom I admire. He’s done a lot of great reporting on a wide range of topics completely unrelated to the extracurricular activities of Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Like, this, for example!) The focus here is on wondering, personally, what the thought process and the rationalization might be behind deciding whether or not to publish identifying information about people, particularly minors, tangentially related to a major headline.
What irked me about Hunter’s posts wasn’t the fact that, you know. They exist. So The Daily considers the online profile and childish (Because, you know. He’s a child) posturing of Arnold’s love child newsworthy. That’s for them to determine and, hey, their headline did get me to click. What bothered me, rather, was that the framing of the story seemed… hesitant. You want to post a photo of the kid that many people are likely trying to find? Go for it. But blurring his face so that only his exact eye color remains a mystery reads, to me, as trying to straddle the fence.
I wouldn’t, personally, have posted that story. I don’t care whether Arnold’s kid is an angel or a holy terror, and I don’t consider it newsworthy. However, if his child, say, stole a car and drove it through his local neighborhood combination Taco Bell / Pizza Hut, or appeared on CNN talking about Christmases spent without his biological dad, a single tear rolling down one cheek, I’d probably write about it, and I’d include a picture or seventy-two.
While, as a media blogger, I consider anything you post on a public profile across any social media platform fair game, I also understand that there is a time and a place for including it. Here are my rules (for now!) on linking to maybe possibly newsworthy people’s social media accounts, particularly if these people happen to be under the age of 18:
If your guidelines differ from mine, cool. Just make it consistent, make your editorial decisions transparent, and be able to defend those decisions to your critics.
Have a tip we should know? firstname.lastname@example.org