What Can You Ask a Public Figure?

For indispensable reporting on the coronavirus crisis, the election, and more, subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter.


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.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest