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February 6, 2006

Column: The press and rumors about Senator Kennedy's bachelor days

NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. — Ever since reporters took up Gary Hart's challenge to put a tail on him, then sunk his 1988 presidential candidacy with details of a tryst with an attractive model, the private sex lives of prominent politicians have been considered fair game for the press.

The journalistic rationale is that character counts and voters have a right to know about questionable personal conduct because it may tell something about how an individual will perform in office or serve the public interest without fear or favor.

Yet most mainstream news outlets continue to grant a reasonable right of privacy to public officials, depending on their notoriety, the nature of reports about their private lives and whether reporters think the sordid details are newsworthy and, therefore, worth checking out.

Supermarket tabloids operate under different rules. They take a devil-may-care approach, often basing stories about bad behavior by public figures on hearsay more than first-hand accounts or records such as a birth certificate. Lack of official confirmation is not an obstacle.

The contrast can create public confusion. If a tabloid touts a curious story about a well-known person, why does the mainstream media all but ignore it? Shouldn't there at least be a mention of the story, and an effort to press the person for a response?

Those were the types of questions asked by newspaper readers, Web bloggers and callers to talk-show programs after the National Enquirer's front-page story two weeks ago that said Sen. Ted Kennedy was the biological father of a boy born to a Cape Cod woman 21 years ago.

At the time, Kennedy was single, having divorced his first wife, Joan, in 1982. He married his second wife, Victoria Reggie, in 1992. There have been plenty of rumors about Kennedy's conduct during his bachelor days between marriages, but nothing about fathering what the National Enquirer described as a "secret love child."

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