Can we pause for a moment here, a week into the Foley sex story, to note how much the world of scandal journalism has changed in the last few decades?
Once, the slightest conjecture about a pol's rumored extramarital affair was enough to make the whole media establishment tremble with nervous excitement. Remember Jennifer Fitzgerald? In 1988, unpublished press chatter about her alleged relationship with George H.W. Bush briefly sent the stock market plunging.
An affair! The word seems so quaint now, likewise "rumored" and "chatter." Back then there was so much we didn't know for sure. Even in authentic full-blown scandals, much of the action stayed behind the curtain. The most scandalous political photo of the '80s showed Donna Rice perched on the lap of presidential aspirant Sen. Gary Hart aboard the good ship Monkey Business. And they were both fully clothed. Such innocent times.
Now scandals are full-immersion experiences, with no seamy detail left unexplored. The '90s gave us presidential semen stains and the specific predilections of perverted priests. Today, thanks to former Rep. Mark Foley, the nation pores over explicit man-boy instant-message traffic about masturbatory habits—verbatim transcripts available on the screen nearest you. Send 'em to your mobile and read aloud to friends!
The transformation has happened so quickly that journalists and their audiences still appear to be trying to make sense of it all. Earlier this week, on Washingtonpost.com, a reader suggested to the paper's Howard Kurtz that a headline that appeared on the ABC News Web site over a Foley scandal story—"Sick, Sick, Sick"—"was a bit over the top." Kurtz's reply: "If you read some of the IMs involving Foley, most of which are too graphic and raunchy to be published or broadcast, you wouldn't think the headline was overstated."
A good point, because in modern scandal journalism, nothing can really be overstated. But then, Kurtz's notion that the IMs are not being "published" or "broadcast" seems itself a purely academic distinction. After all, the IM trails that sent this story into orbit were available from the start, in all their glory, at the ABC News Web site. True, you had to click on a special link and venture past the warning, "READER DISCRETION STRONGLY ADVISED." But let's face it, that disclaimer is the modern equivalent of a circus barker: "STEP RIGHT UP AND SEE THE REALLY DIRTY STUFF BEFORE WE TAKE IT DOWN." If it wasn't there to draw an audience, why would ABC go to all the trouble? And what is the Web if not a kind of broadcasting?
The strange thing is, these stories now come along so frequently that they no longer truly shock. Remember Anita Hill and her Coke-can stunner? Or how the Starr Report had the whole country squirming in discomfort? Today it all kind of flows over us. Another day, another journey into the genital lives of public figures.
In fact, it's all so familiar that you have to wonder if we're being desensitized. Is the new transparency taking the scandal out of scandal?
It has certainly raised the bar for what constitutes one. The Monkey Business pic wouldn't be the showstopper it was at the time. Still, the basic kinds of behavior that create these stories in the first place haven't changed at all. The old stalwarts—sex, lies, greed, hypocrisy—may not stupefy us, but they still scandalize us. If they didn't, Foley would have been a one-day yawn, and you wouldn't be reading this column.
What's changed is that scandals have simply become a consumer good. Where they used to be rare, unpredictable, and a little scary, today they are common, routinized, and manageable. The product arrives through an orderly, efficient supply chain, and unfolds according to a familiar protocol:
News breaks, foul behavior is revealed. Subject confesses, denies, or goes into rehab. There's a "widening investigation," sometimes followed by indictments. Calumny, shame, and remorse. Closure. Move on to the next one.
Yes, it's strange to live in a society that so thrives on scandal that we've turned it into a commodity. But the day we cease to crave it will be the day when everything, even a dirty old congressman who preys on kids, has lost its ability to disturb. And who would want to live in that world?