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Student Essayists Put Media Under Microscope

March 02, 1998|JACK ROBINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The news media go too far in covering the private problems of public leaders, say most Ventura County teens who entered the latest Times essay contest.

By a ratio of better than 2-1, they described President Clinton, Princess Diana and even Ventura County's own Superior Court Judge Robert Bradley as victims of reporters who pursue sensationalism for profit--at the expense of more important news.

But some essayists wrote that television programs, magazines and newspapers have a duty to tell the public about the character of elected leaders, even if that takes them into the bedroom or the barroom.

"Although many would like to believe that what goes on in the private lives of our public officials is not important to their duties, their behavior at home has a direct and unavoidable impact on their behavior at work," wrote contest winner Nicole Bednarski, a senior at La Reina High School in Thousand Oaks. "And because their behavior at work has a direct impact on us, their constituents, the media have a responsibility to report any negative personal behavior of these public officials."

Bednarski, who wins $100 for her entry, was among about three dozen Ventura County high school students to enter the latest in a monthly series of contests sponsored by The Times' Ventura County Edition. Her essay will be published Sunday on the Ventura County editorial page and will be posted on The Times' World Wide Web site at http://www.latimes.com/essaycorner.

February's contest asked students this question: Ventura County Judge Robert Bradley recently was arrested twice on suspicion of drunk driving. President Clinton has been accused in a sex scandal. Are the media paying too much attention to the private business of public leaders, or serving the legitimate interests of citizens?

Some argued that both men are fair game.

"Both Judge Bradley and President Clinton are public officials, holding positions of public trust and directly accountable to the voters," wrote George Fujii, a senior at Westlake High School. "As public servants, rather than private citizens, both officials' private affairs are subject to greater scrutiny than the affairs of a private person."

Vicki Chou invoked the image of tiny spots of mold on the rind of an orange to make her point. "Sometimes superficial imperfections are indicative of deeper flaws, and there are reasons why integrity on all levels is important in a leader," wrote the La Reina High senior. "To expose these potential flaws, it is up to the media to delve even into the private lives of public leaders to ensure the good of the public."

Like many essayists, contest winner Bednarski, a 17-year-old Camarillo resident, distinguished between coverage of Bradley--sentenced last week to 30 days in jail for driving under the influence--and Clinton.

"In the case of Judge Bradley . . . the public has every right to know about his charges, not only because arrests and trials are a matter of public record, but because his actions constitute hypocrisy and poor judgment of the highest order," she wrote.

But "President Clinton's case is a little more complex--the entire investigation thus far is based almost entirely on hearsay, and determining how much bearing this issue has on his duties is difficult."

Although most students said coverage of the Bradley case was necessary, some thought Ventura County newspapers went too far.

"Drunk driving is illegal, but you don't see an average person's name smeared across the front page unless someone has been killed," wrote Bonnylee Smith, a sophomore at Nordhoff High School in Ojai.

As for Clinton, many argued the president has been hounded by the media.

"The media today is making a mockery of our freedom of the press," wrote Audrie Madden of Simi Valley, also a senior at La Reina. They have "already found President Clinton guilty of a crime that as of yet he has only been accused."

Many student essayists wrote that coverage of the accusations against Clinton has yet to prove them relevant to his performance in office. A special prosecutor is investigating whether the president may have had sex with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and then urged her to lie about the affair.

"Questioning the morality of politicians is like wondering if a bicycle can run with square wheels," wrote Newbury Park High School senior Natasha Behbahany of Thousand Oaks. "Clinton's morality has no place in the American eye unless it is proven that illegal actions followed as a result of it."

"We, the public, have a legitimate interest in Judge Bradley's drunk driving and any other activities which may also affect his job performance," wrote Antoinette Hurtado of Somis, another La Reina senior. "However, if a public leader's private business does not affect us, as in the case of President Clinton's sex scandal, then who cares what that leader does behind closed doors?"

"It is none of our business who he has sex with. We should leave that to Hillary," wrote Erika Muro, a senior at Oxnard High School.

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