Thursday, July 24, 2008

Just Sex?

The recent Edwards non-story has left the media once again grappling with how to treat the sexual behavior of public figures. Things were so much easier in the Good Old Days when we could just plaster the big red "A" on our politicians and beat them with sticks.

That was nice and simple but then we all got enlightened. It is completely reasonable for the public to forgive the sexual pecadilloes of its politicians. I'm sure a lot of politicans--maybe even most--have them. However, it's another thing entirely for the press to decide what's forgivable and what's not. Larry Craig with a wide stance? Too juicy to pass up. Potential vice presidential candidate or cabinet secretary with an secret, illegitimate daughter and dying wife? Apparently not so juicy. Why?

Here's my take: The old "public's right to know" saw that the press uses when it suits them is pretty much correct. Yes, the public is considerably less enlightened than those august personages of the Fourth Estate, and less likely to forgive various human failings. And there's certainly something nicely human about the press deciding that a dying wife doesn't need to have this piece of dirty laundry aired after her husband chose--in vain--to devote a good chunk of the rest of her life to his political ambitions. But ultimately, it's not for the press to decide what news is good news and what news is bad news. If it's news, they need to run it.

Here's why:
  • Hypocrisy. For good or ill (mostly the latter), the disconnect between what politicians say or espouse and how they actually behave is a key datum in how voters decide whether a candidate is trustworthy and otherwise suitable for public office. When you catch 'em acting contrary to something they've made a cornerstone of their public persona, that's news and needs to be reported.

  • Criminal behavior. The sex may not be criminal but the cover-up often is. Sorry, guys--I think it was a no-brainer to go after Clinton for perjury.

  • Transparency. Politicans keep secrets. Very few of those secrets accrue to the public good. The media have a duty to increase the risk-to-reward ratio of keeping a secret whenever they can. A second reason that the press needs to report this stuff is that a politican with a secret is a politican that can be manipulated. Many years ago, I was told that the CIA didn't care if you were gay but they cared a lot if you were in the closet. An openly gay intelligence officer couldn't be blackmailed; a closeted one could.

  • Context. If a sexual incident isn't reported, the public can't figure out what's going on. Ever wonder why Charlie Crist vanished from the list of possible McCain running mates? Think it might have anything to do with this?
It's nicely utopian to think of sex as a personal thing between two (or possibly more) consenting adults. But that's simply not true. Sex is wired so deeply into our biology that it completely controls our family, social, and, indeed, political behavior. And the fact that most people--even politicians!--are fundamentally decent human beings just makes things worse. Infidelity hurts those you love and to whom you owe fidelity worse than anybody else. Having made the mistake, who wouldn't want to spare your loved ones the pain? But the consequences of keeping that secret can distort public life in unexpected ways. The press therefore needs to report on this, unpleasant though it may be.

Of course, the other problem with the Edwards thing is that the scoop comes from the freakin' National Enquirer. How can the respectable press, after years of turning their noses up at this publication, suddenly use them as a primary source? I'm betting that they just can't quite handle the cognitive dissonance. Once the story is more respectably sourced, I'm sure the press will jump on this.


MannyJ said...

Good points in the abstract, but do they really apply well to Edwards?

1) Hypocrisy. Has Edwards made sexual morality a cornerstone of his persona? I thought he was a Mill-Worker's Son Who Fights For The Common Man (TM). This point applies much better to, say, Elliot Spitzer, who prosecuted prostitution rings.
2) Crime. Yes, the cover-up is often a story worth covering. How does that apply to this escapade?

3) Transparency - some might say, a politician who can trust the press to leave him a bit of privacy may be more open to them in general.

4) Blackmail - again, more likely with someone who would be more harmed by exposure. And I'm not sure that every dirty secret should be aired just in case it falls into the wrong hands. Seems a bit like beating a kid up to prepare him for how tough life is. You force many good people out of public life or into lower roles, and scare a lot more off, without weighing the level of risk you're warding against. Many politicians have the guts to ignore blackmail threats. Think of Wellington, and M.L. King.

5) Context - again, context of what? I assume you don't mean Edwards was somehow forced out of the campaign because Secret Masters knew he had a mistress?

In short, your own list of possible reasons shows that this is a good case for NOT dragging someone through hell.

TheRadicalModerate said...

How many of your objections would evaporate in the face of Edwards being a VP candidate? How many if he's nominated for, say, Attorney General?

I largely agree with you if Edwards was a private citizen, and I especially agree with you given that he's got a dying wife. But, de facto, he's not a private citizen--he's a power-wielding, consensus-making member in good standing of the Democratic power elite. That not only allows the press to go after him, it more or less requires them to go after him. They're not.

MannyJ said...

The only ones that change if he's a contender for a high-level position (which I doubt) are blackmail and context. Context is relatively unimportant here: if Edwards bows out or is eliminated b/c of a skeleton in his closet, it affects the public no more or less than any other personal reason he might have. We may be curious, but so what?

So that leaves the risk of blackmail in the event he is appointed/elected. Same issues I raised apply, tho w/ higher stakes.