Investigative journalism that uncovers and publicizes official corruption has an American tradition going back to John Peter Zenger who was born in Germany in 1697 and died in New York in 1746. Zenger was a printer who wrote exposé articles about our English cousins’ ham-fisted governance of New York, especially by the Royal Governor William Cosby. Cosby took umbrage at these early efforts to inform Americans about government malfeasance. Cosby had Zenger charged with libel but in 1735 a jury refused to convict Zenger because the jury determined that what Zenger wrote about Cosby was the truth. What Zenger printed about Cosby related directly and only to Cosby’s actions as governor. Cosby’s personal life was not in issue. Such subjects as the state of his laundry or personal habits were not material to Cosby’s official actions. There was no “need to know” any salacious scatology.
The First Amendment is our best protection from bad government but it should not be cited in support of mere muckraking. Gossip is fun, if it is about others, but it is not germane to curing our body politic of corruption or bad decisions. And a bipartisan cooperation on matters of national importance would be most welcome. We have certainly been blessed many times before with such attitudes. For example, Republican President William Howard Taft appointed Republican Henry L. Stimson (1867-1950) as Secretary of war (now Secretary of Defense) in 1911-1913. Then later two Democratic presidents, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, appointed Stimson for the same position (1940-1945). Stimson had the experience and knowledge America needed. His political party affiliation was irrelevant to understanding and meeting the threats to our country from Japan and Germany.
But even though Stimson was not naïve about foreign designs on American assets he famously eschewed delving into personal matters. Stimson’s most famous quote relates to secret Japanese dispatches. Stimson explained trust cannot be established by distrust. He succinctly posited: “Gentlemen do not read one another’s mail.”
As story after story and book after book come out about Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and Donald Trump and Mike Pence the muckraking inundates the investigative journalism. We do need to know our politicians’ philosophies, positions and past performances. But such information is sometimes obfuscated by “revelations” about their personal lives and peccadilloes.