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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In "It's Not a Crisis. This Is the New Normal," we explain, as matter-of-factly as we can, what exactly our finances look like, how brutal it is to sustain quality journalism right now, what makes Mother Jones different than most of the news out there, and why support from readers is the only thing that keeps us going. Despite the challenges, we're optimistic we can increase the share of online readers who decide to donate—starting with hitting an ambitious $300,000 goal in just three weeks to make sure we can finish our fiscal year break-even in the coming months.

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