From too little to too much information, what’s relevant in Schwarzenegger coverage

When news broke Tuesday morning that Arnold Schwarzenegger had fathered an out-of-wedlock child, the Los Angeles Times protected the mother’s privacy by excluding her name from coverage.

A day later, The New York Times had published not only the woman’s name, but photos of her and her home, as had ABC, MSNBC and most large news websites — though, notably, not the LA Times.

LA Times editor Russ Stanton explained to media writer James Rainey why the paper continued to withhold the woman’s name, while New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller explained to Rainey why the paper published it, along with other details.

“Our basic job is to inform readers about news events, so we need a pretty compelling reason NOT to give readers information we think they care about,” Keller wrote, in part. “We’re sensitive to privacy issues, but in this case we don’t see that compelling reason to keep our readers in the dark.”

Keller added: “Often — as in the Schwarzenegger case — we withhold the names of children, because they are particularly vulnerable….

“The employee who had Schwarzenegger’s child is a more complicated question. We don’t know enough about the circumstances to know whether, or in what degree, she was a victim, beyond the obvious fact that there was a serious imbalance of power in the relationship.

“But there’s nothing to suggest that reliving the earlier experience is likely to be traumatizing in the sense rape victims describe (she’s lived with it — and worked for him — for 10 or 15 years). And the reality is, there is not much privacy left for us to protect.”

As journalists, once we moved beyond the woman’s name, we compensated for starving readers of details by serving them an all-you-can-eat buffet.

News media are shown outside the home believed to be the residence of a household staff member who mothered a child with former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Wednesday, May 18, 2011, in Bakersfield, Calif. (Nick Ut/AP)

Surely there are options between famine and feast.

And even if you believe there’s no cause to protect her identity — though doing so reveals the identity of the minor child — how much information, and of what sort, is justifiable?

Here’s what I’ve learned from the news coverage:

Here’s what I really want to know:

  • Did Schwarzenegger buy her the house?
  • If the mother was brought on as a state employee after the child was born, was there any impropriety about the hiring? Was she compensated at the same rate as other household staff?
  • What was the nature of Schwarzenegger’s “support” of the child? Was it in any way related to his gubernatorial responsibilities?

The underlying question of journalistic interest is: How — if at all — did this relationship affect California taxpayers? The rest is celebrity or entertainment news.

When news breaks, the instinct is to learn everything. And when you don’t yet know what’s relevant, it’s tempting to publish all you know.

In an insightful piece that addresses why news organizations seek and share all sorts of seemingly irrelevant information about these high-profile cases, The New York Times’ Kate Zernike suggests it is, in part, as if “those details could somehow explain the headlines about the powerful figures.”

“It is part of a fascination with the man,” said Suzanne Goldberg, director of the Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia. “What sort of woman could this powerful man have been attracted to? I think as a society, we care about the lives of powerful celebritylike figures.”

“That curiosity extends not only to their home decorating, but also to who is in their beds,” she added. “The women suffer the collateral damage of our interest.”

To minimize that collateral damage, be clear: just because something is part of your reporting process doesn’t mean it must be part of my reading process.

Let’s agree there is a middle ground between too little and too much information. That middle ground is occupied by the right information.

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  • Anonymous

    Thank you for pinting out the ?’s that are relevant & the trash ones.  What compacion did the media have for this enocent child?  By posting the mother’s name there went the child’s privacy, that is a no brainer.  The press tellling us readers how they have not disclosed “the boys name” is insulting to me the reader and most people with scrupals.  What right do we the readers have by participating in making this childs life a living nightmar?.  We the readers need to learn and step up to the plate. If we did not read the trash or buy it, it would not be printed. 
    Let us tell the righters “we want real news not trash” other wise we are just as guilty as the writers.  The wrighters have the responsability to write news.  Not the responsability to write trash that harms even further an inosent child.  To the writers, if you want to be profecional then have integrity and you will then be profecionals.  Other wise you are iresponsible trash writers.

  • Anonymous

    I’m basically concerned about the child. What people do in the bedroom is nobody’s business and now maybe what was a well adjusted child can be messed up for life.  He is at the very vulnerable age.  Its tough enough to be a teenager today

  • Joyce

    Really – heck ya I think the press has gone to far…..leave them all alone. They are only human – it’s not the boys fault – leave them all alone….Arnold and Maria and their kids and Patty and her kids. geez now the press is hounding her oldest younger - do you think i really give 2 …..!    just leave it alone and let them all work it out. I don’t care to watch the pain unroll. just leave it alone.

  • poemsbyangeleyes

    ppl need to mind there own business like the press and stay out of things if ppl dont want there names in the media  then they should repect that and not hound them or follow them around. come on ppl back off . 

  • Poynter

     David, I was not aware of that, but I’m so glad to know it. Thank you.

  • David M. Cole


    >>The underlying question of journalistic interest is: How — if at all — did this relationship affect California taxpayers? The rest is celebrity or entertainment news.

    Great observation. As you may or may not know, Schwarzenegger declined his $206,500 annual salary for the seven years he was in office, paid for his own travel (mostly using his private jet) as well as various expenses (much famed “cigar tent” outside capitol building — he paid out of his own pocket) so it is unlikely that the California taxpayers bore the brunt of any of this.

    Which would suggest that if you discount the celebrity or entertainment news, this story should go away. Unfortunately, I doubt that the first two items will ever be discounted.


  • Poynter

    Excellent observation, Jill. That is definitely a sign of how the topic is being treated.

  • Jill Geisler

    Julie, I just shared the link to this good piece on my FB page, and added that my personal measure of the shallowness of a story: the number of AS movie clips or lines woven in for cute effect.