Published in Dateline, Politics and the Press: Has the Media Focus on 'Character' Distorted the Race of '88?, April 19, 1988. A publication of the National Society of Professional Journalists

In the spring of 1987 my life changed, possibly forever. I accept the responsibility for my choices in life. What follows is not a justification for those choices, but my observations as one caught in a powerful cross fire of the press, politics and public opinion.

Prior to the breaking of the Miami Herald story, I was successful yet anonymous. Imagine, if you will, going overnight from anonymity to finding your name and face in the headlines of nearly every publication and television newscast in the country. Without confirmation, consideration or consent, my name and personal details of my life were released to and by the press. Unwilling, vulnerable and unprepared, I was urged to hold a press conference. The damage was done, yet it had just begun.

Generally, one comes to notoriety slowly – over years – and has time to learn the nuances of dealing with the pressures and problems of media and public awareness. Not so in my case. I found it difficult to get sound advice and to discern whom I could trust. Often those who came running to my "rescue" saw their own opportunity for fame and fortune. I felt like a piece of chum tossed as bait into shark-infested waters.

It was impossible to resume my normal life, and I retreated into seclusion. Silence seemed to be my only alternative since I chose not to exploit the situation. The financial reward offered if I were willing to become a voluntary pawn in this high-stakes chess game was in the millions. Self-restraint took on new meaning. My silence was the result of shock, a natural discretion that led me to salvage whatever shreds of privacy I could and a sense of responsibility that I should not impede the political process.

The media blitz transpired without my cooperation. As an armchair viewer, I watched with frustration as a small percentage of my experience was extrapolated out of the context of my life, slanted and splashed in sensational technicolor around the world. I have often wondered if I had made myself available to the press if I could have prevented the innuendo and misinformation that continued to appear. At the time it didn't seem possible, given the delicacy of the matter and the media's rush for deadlines and headlines.

My personal contact with the press has been limited. I granted one interview to Life magazine and two interviews to Barbara Walters. In these instances, the journalists displayed compassion and worked diligently to present a complete, well-rounded story. My other attempts to cooperate with the media were not as pleasant. In one instance, I supplied a list of character references consisting of prominent physicians who were clients, college professors and friends of at least 10 years. The first and only reporter to receive the list personally offended each individual she interviewed and wrote a twisted article that caused untold anguish to my family, my friends and myself.

In my opinion, journalistic gossip often took the place of responsible, evenhanded reporting. In one particularly outrageous case, I threatened legal action and got a quick retraction ending with the words: "The Article referred to as a source for these statements does not in fact contain them. I wish therefore to retract those characterizations and to apologize to Ms. Rice." Of course, the damage was already done. The final straw came after two major articles, rife with inaccuracies, were written from "off the record" conversations. I finally understood that such promises were contingent on a journalist's personal integrity and self-restraint. I withdrew further into my shell.

Between December and the Iowa caucus in early February, the media's interest in "my story" peaked again. In reality, the interest has always been in "the story," thus potentially reducing my life to a weekend boat trip. I continued to feel that I was being summoned as an eyewitness to offer testimony in order to create news and interfere with the political process. In a couple of instances, I was told that I could name my price. I chose not to play ball.

As I began to understand the business aspect of the media, the volatile political environment, the ever-common double standard and the fact that many publications used unauthorized pictures and stories merchandised by aggressive opportunists. I realized I was in a no-win situation. Given the provocative nature of the story, the angle that sold fed straight into the soap-opera syndrome prevalent in American thinking.

With regard to the political sensitivity of the situation, it is understandable that, for the opposition, anything reflecting discredit on Donna Rice further emphasized the former presidential candidate's poor judgment. For his supporters, I was "the woman in question," the source of the problem. Either way, my credibility didn't stand much of a chance. My fate was sealed when I was cast as a "Bimbo" and "Temptress." Thus, instead of being presented as Donna Rice, Phi Beta Kappa, pharmaceutical representative, professionally acknowledged commercial actress with a pleasant photograph, I was stereotyped as Donna Rice, part-time model/party girl amid a flurry of alluring swimsuit photos.

As one who was the target of negative reporting and comment, I think I have an unusual, though unfortunately not unique, vantage point. I am disturbed by what I see. It is clear to me that in my case, the media often crossed the line between responsible journalism and sensationalism.

I believe in a free press. I believe the public has a broad right to know.  But I also believe the media have a measure of responsibility to use their freedom with care. The press has extraordinary power to shape public opinion. When that power is used carelessly, as it was in my case, public opinion can shatter private lives.

I'm not arguing for increased censorship, I am arguing that the media have a duty to exercise compassion and restraint, to err on the side of decency and honesty, even at the expense of a good story or a great laugh line. As I see it, those of you who are a credit to your profession are those who effectively and truthfully communicate information-while upholding human dignity. There is no way to mandate that kind of behavior. The responsibility lies with each of you.

Donna Rice divides her time between Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. She says she is quietly moving forward with her life and her career.