Kiss and Tell?

Stories this week in the Baltimore Sun, Washington Post, New York Times and elsewhere beg a question: When is it OK to name someone's alleged mistress?

The stories in question concern Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat likely to run for the Maryland statehouse next year who is accusing the current Republican governor, Robert Ehrlich, of orchestrating a whispering campaign about an alleged extramarital affair by O'Malley. The rumored affair was discussed on the conservative website freerepublic.com in postings by a state employee and Ehrlich campaign aide, who was axed by the governor this week.

The newspapers differed in how they reported on the rumor and the rumored mistress. The Sun on Wednesday said only, "The postings discussed O'Malley's marriage." The Times today went further, saying the aide "had spread rumors on a conservative Web site that the mayor once had an affair with a television news reporter."

The Post got into more of the details. "Rumors about O'Malley's marriage have been widespread, but he spoke about them publicly for the first time yesterday," it said, then paraphrased O'Malley himself: "About 18 months ago, he said he first caught wind of a story circulating about how he had fathered a child with a local television news reporter and separated from his wife."

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None of the reports identify the reporter, however. This seems a wise policy; after all, printing rumors is a bad idea. The press only picked up the O'Malley story when the link between the accuser and Ehrlich became clear, making the rumor-spreading a story in itself.

However wise, the policy is not always followed. As Bernie Kerik's nomination for homeland security secretary disintegrated, readers quickly learned of his alleged romps with Judith Regan. When West Virginia governor Bob Wise admitted an affair last May, the woman's name was printed. The intern with whom John Kerry was allegedly involved was referred to only as "a 24-year-old woman" in most of the press (until she came forward herself), but Monica Lewinsky's name emerged the very day the story of Clinton's affair broke on January 21, 1998.

It can be a tough call: Naming the alleged partner can ruin the reputation of someone who might not be a public figure, but withholding the name means hundreds of reporters and editors get to know the dirt that their audience is dying to learn. There's also a distinction, obviously, between cases like Wise's where he admits the affair, and O'Malley's, where it is denied. But even that gets blurred, as in the Lewinsky case. Like any affair, those that end up in the press tend to get messy.

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