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Of Spouses and Significant Others

June 16, 2010

This is an awkward discussion.  It is nevertheless timely and relevant in an election cycle. 

What level of media scrutiny is appropriate when it comes to the spouses and significant others of candidates and elected officials? 

Some believe that they should be strictly off limits. And we tend to agree when the individual involved is a true non-combatant, that is, when the individual is not involved in politics in any way. 

For example, Mr. Silver’s wife, Mr. Sampson’s wife, Mr. Kolb’s wife and Mr. Lazio’s wife – to the best of our knowledge, none of these individuals has done media interviews, opined on political matters or otherwise been involved in the political process. Neither are they engaged in any kind of personal or professional activity that could be considered a conflict of interest with their husband’s position. That being the case, there should be a clearly defined zone of privacy around these individuals. 

It gets more complicated when the individual is a public figure in their own right. Mr. Schumer’s wife is the vice chancellor of CUNY. Mr. Bloomberg’s companion was the state banking superintendent. Both of these women are clearly public figures, however, both have always been very reserved and diplomatic. They have steered clear of politics and, therefore, we’d argue for privacy considerations for each. 

It becomes difficult when the individual is actively engaged in publicity seeking activities. For example, when Michelle Paterson stepped forward to criticize the media and the governor’s opponents, she pretty much forfeited the right to thereafter say: “I’m a private figure, leave me alone.” We know that may sound harsh to some, but people can’t have it both ways. 

A similar situation exists with Mr. Cuomo’s companion, Sandra Lee. Given her status as a national celebrity, whatever she says or does is automatically viewed as newsworthy. This just comes with the territory.  While she hasn’t made partisan remarks, she has expressed her belief that Cuomo is a qualified and deserving candidate for governor. Such comments, though innocuous, invite further inquiry. When she goes about her job as a television personality and actually does public events in New York, there is bound to be interest not just from entertainment reporters, but from political reporters, as well. It is not inappropriate for these reporters to ask political questions. How she responds is up to her, but the door has been opened for that kind of inquiry.  

In a related matter, Mr. Cuomo’s mother, Mario’s wife, Matilda, is in the news today. She was commenting on Ms. Lee’s cooking for her son, apparently taking exception to her recipe for lasagna. It was a strange story – seemingly humorous and trivial, but also pointed. Matilda, in her day, was no stranger to the media. She’s a former school teacher who headed the then-governor’s Decade of the Child initiative and was its chief spokesperson. Given the present and past circumstances, it would be hard to argue that coverage of her is inappropriate. 

Perhaps the most difficult question of all concerns children of candidates. And here’s where we make an appeal on humanitarian grounds. Even if the candidates exploit their children in campaign appearances and ads, reporters should have restraint. It’s not the kids’ fault that they have self-absorbed parents. There was an example of this in New York City recently. A candidate made a point of featuring his mixed race children in TV ads. While at one level it is affirmative that there is no longer a stigma to attached to mixed race couples and their children, it did seem to us to be a rather unseemly use of one’s family as a campaign prop.

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