The sex scandal as civic lesson
The saturation coverage of the Petraeus sex scandal has yet to annoy many people besides policy wonks, but it won’t be long before a full-throated essay attacking the endless column inches and hours of airtime devoted to the salacious story arrives. (Inching close to that stand but not quite occupying it today are Tom McGeveran of Capital New York, Howard Kurtz, and The Week, which is upset about the “sexist” coverage of the scandal.) As was the case with the Clinton-Lewinsky* sex scandal, the Herman Cain sexual harassment scandal, the Anthony Weiner Twitter scandal, the Eric Massa “tickle” scandal, the John Edwards sex scandal, and many others, some columnist or talking head will grumble about how the Petraeus story has distracted the populace from the real issues of the day — the fiscal cliff, climate change, job creation, the deficit, Hurricane Sandy recovery, Sudan and Somalia, immigration policy, the Middle East…
Tell these people to go pound sand.
Political sex scandals have a way of engaging an otherwise apathetic public in substantive coverage about the workings of the criminal justice system, the misuse of political power, and American prudery. Already the Petraeus scandal has schooled a naïve nation about proper email hygiene, the internal workings of the FBI, lax military discipline, computer privacy issues, and the loose handling of classified information. And this scandal has been in the wild for less than a week.
Reading about the Cain, Clinton, Weiner, and Edwards scandals may have sickened you. I can remember squeamish moments while reading the Starr Report. But the reporting on the Clinton scandal, the Cain episode, the Weiner sleaze, and Edwards’ adventures in lying and cheating right-sized the public’s estimation of political figures. Where the accused were forced to defend themselves before a court (Edwards) or the House of Representatives (Clinton), citizens were given direct windows on the workings of justice. In the Cain business, readers everywhere were given a course on ethical and legal conduct in the workplace that could not be equaled by any commercial refresher course. And as dopey as the Weiner incident was, it demonstrated convincingly how small-screen fantasies can expand to big-screen embarrassments better than any fear-mongering cover story in Time or Newsweek. Who doesn’t recall intense (and informed!) watercooler arguments over evidentiary standards during the Clinton impeachment hearings? Such scandals have the potential to make walking Wikipedia entries of us all.
Readers find scandals—sexual or otherwise—more appealing than “crisis” coverage about the fiscal cliff or immigration policy because as complicated as the cliff and immigration may be, the essence of these topics can be gleaned with 15 or 20 minutes of study. Scandal stories, on the other hand, bleed out like a stomach wound, slowly, steadily, painfully. Like the Bible, they educate us about our sordid, sinful world by wrapping it up inside intelligible narratives. Every day, every hour brings a new revelation, a new cast of characters, some new wrinkle, as this dandy chronology of the Petraeus scandal in The Guardian by Heidi Moore, demonstrates.
Now I won’t pretend that the coverage of the Petraeus scandal has been one long, exciting civics lesson. Obviously, prurient interest drives reader and viewer interest in such a story, just as prurient interest drives viewer interest in soap operas, mysteries, pornography, reality TV, and plenty of disaster coverage. But well before the audience sates itself on visions of David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell engaged in marathon boinking sessions, the press has served a useful info-banquet on the peripheral topics raised in the scandal. Today’s Page One of The New York Times, for example, asks what privacy implications of “policing the Web for crime, espionage and sabotage” the scandal raises. Yesterday’s Times collected a slew of officers-behaving-poorly and reported on what motivated the FBI to inquire into the Petraeus emails. Why exactly would General John R. Allen email 20,000 to 30,000 of pages of documents to Tampa socialite Jill Kelley—if he even did? (Having trouble following the story? See this Washington Post “who’s who” graphic.)
The Petraeus coverage also documents the ease with which a foreign spy agency could lure the CIA boss into a honey trap if that boss was as undisciplined as David Petraeus. The security bubble that protects the CIA director doesn’t much protect him when his libido is in full flower, as today’s Washington Post reports. His security detail are not in his office at all times (and certainly not under his desk!); they live in his basement, but they do not have full run of his house; they protect him in hotel suites, even putting motion detectors in the hallway, but “they do not step in uninvited”; they ride in his jet, “but they are not usually inside his VIP cabin.” Faster than you can say “I did not have sex with that woman,” a CIA director can find a cozy place for a quick opportunity. Petraeus’s indiscretion is compounded by his other rule-breaking—namely sharing a Gmail account with Broadwell in an attempt to send undetectable email.
Besides, it’s not like sex-scandal coverage sonically cancels crisis coverage. My morning newspapers still teem with detailed pieces on the cliff, immigration, Afghanistan, marijuana legalization, gay marriage legalization, et al. My Tweet feed abounds with links to non-Petraeus content. As I write, the TVs in the newsroom peal with the sounds of the presidential press conference. The least worthy press critic is the one who complains about too much coverage. The best knows when to simply turn the page.
See Edward Jay Epstein’s blog today, where he poses questions about the 10 missing dates in the Petraeus chronology. I share my Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com account with nobody. The same goes with my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.
*This piece has been updated. It originally misspelled Monica Lewinsky’s name.