What Can You Ask a Public Figure?

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Andrew Sullivan explains why he thinks it’s OK to ask public figures if they’re gay:

If someone’s entire private life is on the table except that, it’s a function of homophobia. Period. A gay person is free to adopt such a homophobic veil; but a reporter need not enable it. So when does Benjy Sarlin write a piece on his own magazine’s “ethics”?

Look. I get why Andrew feels this way. And if that really were the only thing off the table, he’d have a point. But here’s a short sample of other questions that are generally off limits when you’re interviewing public figures:

  • So, have you ever had an affair?
  • Do you masturbate when your wife isn’t around?
  • Have you ever had a three-way?
  • Do you download a lot of porn from the internet? Or do you prefer buying it old school on the newsstand?
  • I think Asian guys are really hot. How about you?

Notice a trend? They’re all related to your sex life. And they’re all generally off limits unless (a) you’ve put it on the table yourself, (b) there’s a specific reason to ask about it, or (c) you’re part of the gossip circuit where nothing is off limits in the first place. I mean, this is common sense. If you’re interviewing Ricky Martin or Silvio Berlusconi, that’s one thing. If you’re interviewing someone who’s obviously eager to talk about their sex life, go to town. But if you’re interviewing a Supreme Court justice or the CEO of Goldman Sachs, you just don’t bring this stuff up. Come on.

UPDATE: This was poorly worded. I didn’t mean to equate sexual identity and sexual activity this baldly or to make it the main point of this post. More here.

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We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

The months and years ahead won't be easy. Far from it. But there's no one we'd rather face the big challenges with than you, our committed and passionate readers, and our team of fearless reporters who show up every day.

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