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Victims of a Hustler

National | Sometimes citizens have a duty to listen to dirt about their politicians, but Flynt can make no such claim

Issue: "Clinton's great escape," Feb. 6, 1999

A cool million bucks. That's how much porn lord Larry Flynt offered last October to anyone who had committed adultery with a high official and could prove it. People will do a lot for that kind of money, and before long the slime was rolling in. So far Mr. Flynt has accused several congressmen of sexual sins and made insinuations about several others.

Mr. Flynt is what is called today a "First Amendment hero." The publisher of Hustler, he once decorated the cover of his magazine with a picture of a nude woman being fed into a meat-grinder and coming out as hamburger. In better times nobody would have been interested in what a man like this had to say about the moral standards of others. However, he has found a formula for media attention in declaring that he wants to expose the "hypocrisy" of those who put Mr. Clinton on trial.

Put aside the fact that the president was impeached not for his sexual behavior, but for perjury and obstruction of justice. We all know that sex is an issue too, and let's face it: If sex can be an issue for a president, then it can be an issue for a congressman.

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But that raises other questions: Knowing the dirt is one thing; digging it up is another. Is it ever right to dig up the dirt about other people's sexual sins? Suppose someone else dug up the dirt. Is it ever right to listen to it?

The answers are all the same: No in general; yes in special cases. We must make distinctions.

The general case is plain, for Scripture condemns gossips, talebearers, and busybodies of all sorts. Paul sums up the biblical wisdom when he says to the Ephesians, "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen."

The special cases arise for two reasons. First, not all talk about evil is evil talk; only needless or malicious talk about evil is evil talk. Second, not all those who listen to accusations are busybodies; only those who listen without a duty to listen are busybodies. Let's see how these principles play out.

Digging Dirt, Part I. Larry Flynt, of course, would say he has done no differently toward the president's accusers than the accusers have done toward the president. The difference is that unlike Mr. Flynt, who is venting his spleen, the president's accusers are fulfilling the duties assigned to them by law. The special prosecutor, for example, was appointed by the attorney general under the authority of a law passed by Congress long before the present scandal had developed, and a judge specifically authorized his investigation into the Monica Lewinsky matter because of the possibility that crimes had been committed.

Listening to dirt. In a sense, the citizens of a free republic hold an office too: Although they do not carry out the actual business of government, they sit, as voters, in perpetual judgment on the conduct of the elected officials who do. For this reason they are not only permitted, but obligated, to listen to accusations that would be none of their business if they were mere subjects of a king. However, the listening duty must be exercised discerningly. It is one thing to consider charges of sexual predation that has continued to the present and used the power of an elected office as a cover. It would be quite another to listen to tales about a single adultery that even the talebearers admit was committed, ended, and repented decades past. Listening to the former is a duty; listening to the latter is a sin. That's why I didn't repeat the details.

Digging Dirt, Part II. Just as the office of voter gives the citizens of a republic listening duties they would not otherwise have, so the citizens' need for information gives journalists digging duties they would not otherwise have. Does this put Larry Flynt in the right after all? No. Why not? Because just like the listening duty, the digging duty must be exercised discerningly. Whatever would be immoral for a citizen to listen to is immoral for a journalist to dig up or repeat. Thirty-year-old gossip doesn't make me a better citizen.

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