Joe McGinniss’s controversial new biography of Sarah Palin, The Rogue (2011), raises important questions about connections between work, privacy, and individual dignity. From various published reviews it appears the book is a wildly contrasting mix of solid investigative reportage on matters related to Palin’s conduct as a politician and a lot of gossipy, trashy stuff about the personal lives of Palin family members.
I confess I’m not a fan of Sarah Palin. I don’t think she’s got much substance, and her widely acknowledged track record of viciously going after people who cross her and personalizing political disputes is disturbing. Still, there’s some consensus that McGinniss has crossed the line at times in his book, and my inclination is that the criticism is on target.
I don’t claim to have all the wisdom about when the public figure ends and the private person begins, but here are some questions worth asking:
1. Is it true?
If not, there’s no excuse for deliberate or reckless falsehoods. If so, the inquiry doesn’t end there.
2. Even if it’s true, does it bear upon the individual’s public life, whether it be in politics, the media, entertainment, or any other highly visible vocation?
For public officials, the personal can and perhaps should become public if it relates to decisions made and positions taken while in office or on the campaign trail.
That said, there are certain aspects of one’s personal life that should be off limits as a matter of individual dignity. It appears we have fairly obliterated that standard in our current popular culture.
3. Does the subject of the coverage deliberately seek out the limelight and stoke the very attention s/he claims is exploitative or invasive when the subject matter becomes uncomfortable?
This is a fine line, but individuals who encourage a culture of celebrity or a cult of personality-type following may have less to complain about when the media coverage is unflattering. (Live by the limelight, die by it too.) This is especially true for celebrities or wannabes who feel the need to expose or exploit aspects of their private lives and engage in ostentatious displays of personal conduct that beg for attention.