A journalist considers whether public figures still have a right to privacy, and what should be off-limits
Frank Wojciechowski

Sandra Sobieraj Westfall ’89 is People magazine’s Washington bureau chief.

“You’re not going to like this,” the editor said, “but you have to go back to her and ask if they’ll sleep together.” It was June 2010, and I had just run through the highlights of my interview for People magazine with Elizabeth Edwards, estranged wife of disgraced presidential candidate John Edwards: She enumerated the places her terminal cancer had spread; she showed me the chemo port above her right breast; she explained why she was buying Christmas gifts for her husband’s ex-mistress. And, finally, she told me she had asked John to travel with her as she showed her two youngest children, Jack and Emma, her childhood playgrounds in Japan. Whatever I felt about the editor’s follow-up question didn’t matter much. Elizabeth being Elizabeth, she already had told me, unsolicited, in the interview: “Of course the sleeping arrangements will be different — Jack with John, me with Emma.”

Brett Ryder

How is it, though, that such a private detail — which we published ­— could land on both the “must-ask” and “already-answered” sides of the journalistic ledger? Do journalists in the hunt for headlines stop to weigh questions of privacy? At People, we do — scrutinizing paparazzi photos for evidence they were taken surreptitiously, and, in cases of breakups and breakdowns and stints in rehab, routinely asking: Is it our news to break? Maybe the more provocative question is whether public figures even expect privacy anymore. For Elizabeth Edwards, adamant about owning her story and anxious not to be misunderstood, the intrusive question was illustrative. In her compromised health, she needed her husband’s help navigating international travel with two kids and an excess of luggage (she was a prolific souvenir shopper). Fooled once — and at a humiliating price that already had stripped her and her marriage of privacy — she wanted to be clear that she was not taking her husband back into her embrace.

Given what shows up on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter these days, Edwards’ pre-emptive explanation of sleeping arrangements just 3 ½ years ago feels downright quaint now. The lines between news media, entertainment media, and social media are so blurred and overlapping that it sometimes feels like one big “The Media” chasing the same stories and losing little sleep over questions of privacy. If Movie Star X is tweeting private details of his or her hookup/rehab/breakup/weight-loss, isn’t it fair game for the rest of us to report? And isn’t at least some of the erosion of privacy by strategic design? Likability and “relatability” — the ability of consumers and voters to feel a personal connection to public figures — so drive votes (and box office and book sales and TV ratings) that politicians and celebrities increasingly seek to showcase their “just-like-you” private travails and personal foibles. None of that makes it any easier to ask the personal questions.

I am in the business of painting the personal portrait behind the splashy headline. I’ve navigated the privacy line for most of my career, starting with six years as White House correspondent for the Associated Press back when many of us still prefaced tricky questions to the White House press secretary — about Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress, for instance — with an apologetic “I hate to ask this … .” Since then, I’ve been up close and personal with some of the biggest names from the loudest headlines: Elin Nordegren on the eve of her divorce from Tiger Woods; Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin in the wake of his first sexting scandal; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie after his lap-band surgery. I want to understand the why and the how — and, in some cases, the how could you? — behind the facts of whatever story is exploding.

When you’re sitting with someone at the kitchen counter, it can be uncomfortable to ask the sensitive personal questions. Imagine the press-weary, press-wary Todd Palin staring at you hard as you ask his 18-year-old daughter, Bristol, about breast-feeding her baby before she leaves for high school in the mornings. But how else to get at the raw reality of “celebrity” teen motherhood?

I have a simple litmus test for whether a question is in bounds: Does it enlighten the reader on something germane, illuminate something meaningful about the public figure, or inform about some matter of compelling public interest? I take care to ask respectfully, and I count on those I’m questioning to exercise their right — always their right — to pass.

Before his family’s Sunday supper one afternoon during the 2012 presidential campaign, Gov. Mitt Romney and I sat in his son’s family room and talked at length about his personal fortune, his first beer, and the time he tried rolling a cigarette with newspaper. Then I prefaced a question about the garments — the so-called Mormon underwear — worn by members of the LDS church, by suggesting that if non-Mormons understood such traditions better, they might not seem so alien. (You know: “relatability.”) “And that may well be true,” Romney replied, “and if that’s to occur, it will be done by the church.”

It was, frankly, a rare demurral. The only other outright refusals I can recall are Weiner’s declining to detail the “therapy” he received after resigning from Congress and Christie’s turning away the question of how much, exactly, he weighs, even as he was expansive on the details of his workouts, his cravings, and how he can feel the port implanted in his side. Often, I’m surprised by where my subjects are willing to take me. When I tiptoed up to asking Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor ’76 about her rumored poker games, she dove right into telling me how she avoids reporting her winnings by hosting the games and paying for food and drinks. (I looked around for the court’s public-information officer, expecting her to call the whole thing off.) And more than one first lady has, unbidden, offered me a (figurative) peek inside her bedroom — Laura Bush, showing me the green fabric she’d chosen for the headboard of her and George’s bed in their new Dallas home; Michelle Obama ’85, describing Barack’s nightly routine of tucking her into bed with a kiss goodnight before he returned to work.

While it’s sometimes hard to know anymore who is drawing the privacy lines, let alone where the lines should be, there’s always basic human dignity, compassion, and gut instinct to guide a journalist across uncharted terrain. A radio shock jock chided me after my September 2010 interview with Elin Nordegren for not asking her whether she’d been tested for STDs after Tiger’s multiple affairs were exposed. “That,” he insisted, “is what we all want to know!” Not me. Some things, I still believe, are truly none of my business.