My colleague makes a persuasive argument for ignoring sex scandals--they have opportunity cost, after all, and what business is it of ours? Does it tell us anything about how they do their job?
Allow me to suggest that maybe it does. My take on the Clinton scandal at the time was that it got about the right result. Clinton lied under oath. And while I might ordinarily have been sympathetic to complaints that he shouldn't have had to answer such questions, my understanding is that Clinton himself signed into law the legislation under which his behavior--with, mind you, a state employee--was illegal. At which point, I thought the only person in the world who should have had to answer those questions was sitting in the dock. We impeached him, sending the message that, no, you don't get to lie under oath just because you're the president, and then we didn't punish him, sending the message that no, we are not crazy enough to remove the leader of the free world from office over a minor sex scandal.
But later I read Jeffrey Toobin's rather sympathetic account. And I was shocked. I'd had no idea how reckless Clinton had been, dragging off this girl he barely new for a little, um, grip-and-grin. It was completely, astonishingly irresponsible. For all he knew, she might have walked out of that office and told the world. He was playing around with her while he was on the phone with major world figures. Does that tell us something about how Clinton did his job? I think it has to.
How about the French journalists
who thought it was "too private" to reveal that France's foreign minister had a relationship with the daughter of the Syrian defense minister?
There were some allegations that Weiner had been sending lewd messages to high school girls. I understand that these seem to have turned out to be false, so let me be clear that I'm not suggesting he did this. What I am asking is whether we should have ignored those allegations whether or not they turned out to be true. Even if they're eighteen and completely legal, a middle-aged man who is sufficiently indifferent to social convention as to start sending suggestive photos to high school seniors is deeply creepy, in a way that I, as a voter, would kind of like to know about. I don't think there's much danger that finding out about it would have deprived us of the next Churchill.
What he actually did
is bad enough: sexting from work? With strangers he met over the internet? As with Clinton, this is strange and reckless behavior for a public figure whose inappropriate behavior could be used to blackmail him. I don't think it's somehow out of bounds to point it out, or how much we're losing by having less available air time to report forgettable sniping between Republicans and Democrats over the debt ceiling.
(The issue is very important. Most of the reporting right now says the same thing over and over with new quotes, and no one except other journalists appears to be reading it. Not the fault of reporters--we still have deadlines even when not much is happening. But I'm skeptical that we're really sucking all that much oxygen from Vital Issues of The Day. If a major news event actually happened--say, the debt ceiling or a nuclear reactor was breached--we would quickly forget all about Anthony Weiner's, er, alleged acts of photojournalism.)
Maybe it's because I'm older and tireder but these days, the "not our business" school of sex scandal seems to function as a get-out-of-monogamy-free card for powerful men who want to behave badly. If Anthony Weiner were to, say, start randomly swearing at a constituent and calling her terrible names, would anyone argue that we should not report this on the grounds that the behavior's legal? How about if he'd been tricking old ladies out of their pension checks with a shady stockbrockerage? Sure it's legal, but we think it tells us something about his character, and that it's actually useful to know those sorts of things about the people we elect. Gallons of ink have been spilled over Newt's attempt to discuss the terms of his divorce while his wife was recovering from cancer surgery*, and rightly so; it's an act of epic self-absorption, and it's hard to believe that this would never have affected his job performance.
I don't think that the good faith proponents of the argument for ignoring sex scandals actually believe that poor impulse control, accomplished lying, and a willingness to break one's most solemn promises in pursuit of a covert thrill have absolutely no bearing on job performance. I assume they believe that this sort of sexual infidelity is so widespread among powerful men that it has absolutely no predictive power--and also that it's not society's job to punish people who break their marriage vows.
Maybe it's true that infidelity is really this common--though I have a hard time believing that everyone is as blatant and reckless as Clinton. But if so, we should say that: "All powerful men cheat on their wives with as many women as they can get away with, and I don't want to waste time challenging any of them on it."
But I can't sign up for this. I don't think that cheating on your wife, or lesser betrayals like sexting, are minor marital pecadillos, of no more public interest than whether you remembered to pay the gas bill or unload the dishwasher. I don't think it's the government's job to punish infidelity, but that doesn't imply that society has no interest in whether people keep their vows. Marriage is a valuable social institution. There are good reasons that society should buttress it. So I'm not sure it's a waste of time, in the face of these sorts of allegations, to use a few of our precious news hours to say, "Hey, not okay!" Moreover, in the age of the internet, you cannot simply decline to report this as a neutral act. Instead, you send an affirmative message: "We don't really think he did anything wrong."
I am fighting a powerful urge to point out that virtually all of the people urging us to move on to something more important are men. But obviously, I'm losing the fight.
That doesn't mean they're wrong, of course. Maybe they're right, and it's pointless. But there's something a little too fifties about the "All men do it, so why should we care?" approach to this. I'd like to think that enforcing the norms which hold that infidelity is really, actually wrong is worth taking a few hours out of a slow news cycle.
* He didn't serve her with papers, as originally reported, but as I understand it, he did walk into the recovery room to talk terms about a divorce that was already underway, which is nearly as odious.
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