Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.
This applies as much to using Ashley Madison to arrange an affair as it does to using the Ashley Madison hack to expose those who used the site. As a political blogger read by literally dozens of people worldwide, I know that the allure of dumpster diving into the Ashley Madison database for dirt on local politicians and politicos is tempting. If there’s a sure way to get eyeballs on posts, it’s scandal.
But it’s still dumpster diving. And whatever you find in a dumpster is garbage, no matter how it is dressed up and justified.
There’s just nothing about the Ashley Madison story that shines a warm light on our world, and with each passing day more information emerges to reveal cold shadows in human nature. Not only is the site full of men who, by and large, never actually had a conversation with a real woman (most of the millions of men on the site were talking to bots that imitated women), but the hack has revealed that many of these men were those publicly portrayed as upstanding and upright.
Among these are a number who are in the public eye, including elected officials, lobbyists, activists, and more. They are men who have campaigned on or lobbied for issues that relate directly to the family and the marriage relationship. Much of their political career relates, and is owed to, election or support by voters and interest groups who are fearful of the impact of a changing world on the family.
Yet, these same men have chosen in their personal lives to violate those same bonds and relationships that they are championing in their public lives. In short, it’s fodder for sites like Gawker or TMZ, who represent the very worst in journalism. They are sites that have capitalized on the celebrity equivalent of a car accident, and like a car accident, we all seem inclined to rubberneck as we pass, inching by and telling ourselves that it could never happen to us.
Until it does. Until it is us.
But I’m a political blogger (again, read by literally dozens of people worldwide): why would I not delve into the hack to find the dirt? After all, I’ve written about other scandals, including both the Swallow/Shurtleff and the Justin Miller scandals and without the appearance of too many scruples (some might say).
It can be difficult to walk the line between publicizing a political scandal that is need-to-know and one that gratifies only ego, settles scores, or provides for the short-term needs of a blog. Because no one pays me to write, the only measure of success is how many eyeballs read what I wrote. That’s it. Vanity, and maybe a measure of hope that we’re influencing public policy, is all we writers have going for us.
But with Ashley Madison, for me there was never any debate. Exposing the names of individuals found in the database has the potential to move the writer from the realm of the publicly minded to the self-interested and selfish. Further, it’s too tempting to cherry-pick who is exposed, publicizing those you dislike or have a grudge against, even while circling the wagons around your friends. It’s tough to be even-handed when you find an enemy or political rival in the database right alongside a friend or an ally.
I suspect this is why we’ve not seen Utah’s banner news publishers, such as the Salt Lake Tribune, Deseret News, or KSL say much about the individuals found in the Ashley Madison database. I am sure they have the data and could provide the venue to push it out the furthest. And yet, the discussion about what is news and what is just dirty laundry is best had with adults in the room.
This isn’t to say that a pass should be given to these men (or women, if they truly exist on the site). Having a profile on the site speaks to their character, their integrity and, if they ran on or are activists for family values issues, their principles. But the decision to go to print (or post, as the case may be), should be tempered by considerations of whether it matters to the public, whether it is purely salacious, and whether motives for writing and posting are personally driven. The decision should be made with care, not with malice or vengeance in mind.
In other words, not only should exposure of an individual’s private life, and private mistakes, be done only when in the public’s interest, but it should also be done in the right way.
That’s a tough call to make. Unlike stealing money or hanging a “for sale” sign on an elected official’s office door, appearing in Ashley Madison’s database is not so clear-cut a call.
Days after the hack, Ashley Madison continues to grow, despite proof positive that the site is not a secure and secret means by which to initiate an affair. Fools and their money are never long companions. Hopefully, however, we can avoid becoming fools ourselves by not being the first to cast stones.