Tevlin: If you're going into politics, beware of a past lived online
- Article by: JON TEVLIN
- Star Tribune
- October 22, 2013 - 5:58 PM
On the last day of high school, I joined my classmates in drinking a few Miller High Lifes. I was 17 at the time, and breaking the law.
Sometime in the early morning, a buddy and I drove across the lawn of a school official, spun a couple of circles and made a mess of his front yard.
It was not the first or last stupid thing I would do, nor the worst. Fortunately, there were no cellphones with cameras and no Internet at the time, or my actions no doubt would have been captured for posterity, as well as for future employers, future friends and, in the event I wanted to run for office, future voters.
That’s what happened this past weekend when the newspaper reported on the past behavior of a couple of leading DFL candidates from the 12th Ward Minneapolis City Council race.
Reporters discovered defunct websites run by Andrew Johnson, 29, in which he wrote about marijuana and pornography and posted grisly doctored photos of himself more than a decade ago.
Another candidate, Ben Gisselman, had more recently been in financial trouble, struggling with unpaid bills and several lawsuits.
In an interview with reporters, Johnson said that at the time of the posts he had been diagnosed with depression and was “struggling and calling out for help.”
Tuesday, Johnson reiterated, “I was a minor, in high school.”
Gisselman said he, like many others, had struggled during a rough economy and was working to pay off debts.
Some readers complained in comments or to reporters.
Were the candidates fair game?
Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, says yes.
Gisselman’s case is easy. “I think a candidate’s finances are completely relevant,” she said, “especially if he’s running on fiscal responsibility.”
Johnson’s case is more complicated, but likely to become more commonplace because as Johnson said, “I am one of the very first people in our generation who is going to run for office and have to deal with having lived their entire life online.”
Johnson’s point is “absolutely true,” said Kirtley, but also something she would want to know about as a voter.
Kirtley said she agreed with the newspaper’s decision to write about both cases, and thinks the online footprints of every candidate are potentially relevant, as long as the context is explored. She thought Johnson did a pretty good job of doing just that by talking about his past depression, but she wished he’d left the websites up so people could decide for themselves.
“The important principle here is that anybody who is going to run for office has to realize they are going to be under scrutiny,” said Kirtley. But she sees the importance of such revelations changing over time.
“My students say that when they are captains of industry and in charge, they will be able to put [online indiscretions] in perspective better than” older generations.
“He could turn it into a plus, saying ‘here’s what I went through, I understand what it’s like,’ ” Kirtley said.
When the story ran, independent candidate in the 11th Ward, Matt Steele, 27, used the comments section to laud both candidates for fessing up to past problems.
“I am also of the same generation as Andrew Johnson, growing up in the era of the Internet and cellphones,” Steele wrote. “I think it would be unfortunate if the stigma of mental illness in someone’s past became an angle of political attack.”
Steele said he’s glad Johnson faced the issue, and he believes that online disclosures could bring empathy, especially from younger voters.
“Who he is now is what’s important,” said Steele. “I think society is going to catch up [to online lives]. In the old days, people could kind of cover up their old lives and start over.”
There is some movement to do that now, such as “Right to be Forgotten” laws in Europe, in which people could force tech companies to delete data on them from websites, according to Kirtley.
“This story goes to people wanting rights to obliterate your past, and I disagree with that,” Kirtley said. Especially politicians.
Johnson, who suspects an opponent tipped off the media to his Internet past, on Tuesday called the move political. “Adults attacking the actions of a depressed minor for political gain? Sad,” he said in an e-mail. He said he hoped to use his story to help people “feel compassion for those who suffer.”
At 29, Johnson is still young, and thus a political novice. Voters should probably consider that (for better or worse) and his current beliefs (for better or worse), more than something he wrote a decade ago.
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