Tuned In

Is the Weiner Story Any of Our Business?

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With a political sex scandal all over the headlines, at some point the time comes for the argument—well worth having—about whether it should be in the headlines at all. In Salon, Glenn Greenwald makes the impassioned argument that the Anthony Weiner case is none of our business, and that it’s a sad comment on journalists’ priorities:

Media stars contrive all sorts of high-minded justifications for luxuriating in every last dirty detail, when nothing is more obvious than that their only real interest is vicarious titillation. Reporters who would never dare challenge powerful political figures who torture, illegally eavesdrop, wage illegal wars or feed at the trough of sleazy legalized bribery suddenly walk upright — like proud peacocks with their feathers extended — pretending to be hard-core adversarial journalists as they collectively kick a sexually humiliated figure stripped of all importance. The ritual is as nauseating as it is predictable.

No argument here that there are better, braver ways to apply this journalistic feistiness, that we’ve gone into overkill, that I can’t stand hearing the likes of Chris Matthews pontificate morally. And as I’ve said, I personally wouldn’t base a vote for Congress, mayor or dogcatcher on an infidelity. But I can’t agree that anyone not married to Weiner has “absolutely no legitimate reason” to follow the story. For starters, this ignores the story’s timeline; that is, at what point exactly should it have stopped being a story?

Remember how all this first broke into the news: a photo of a man’s bulging groin in underwear appeared in the public Twitter stream of a U.S. Congressman. As the story spread—and it was spreading, through blogs and social media, whether the establishment press tried to will it into nothingness or not—it required a response, if only for Weiner’s own sake. Keep in mind, without proof either way, the press had to act on the assumption that the tweet could have been legitimate or a hoax.

Weiner said the latter. So: a compromising photo appears in public under the name of a high-profile legislator, and he says implies that it is the work of partisan dirty tricks.* That’s a story. If he’s telling the truth, it’s politically motivated character assassination of the lowest kind. If he’s lying, he’s protecting himself by attacking the character of his political detractors. (And, by the way, he’s inviting his supporters to stick their necks out: how many of them defended Weiner with “consider the source” attacks against Andrew Breitbart, et al., muddling the legitimate criticisms of Breitbart with Weiner’s lie?)

*[Update: Reader Stuart Zechman on Twitter asks whether in fact Weiner ever directly said that he was targeted for partisan reasons. Good point; I’m drawing an inference from his claims that he was hacked, and certainly no shortage of Weiner supporters drew the same inference–that the “hacker” singled him out because of his outspoken politics. Now, it is true that, after his initial charges about the hacking, Weiner began using the softer term “prank,” and, for instance, told Wolf Blitzer that “This seems like it’s a prank to make fun of my name.” Now, one could decide that Anthony Weiner, a professional politician whose tweet had been pointed out by a vociferous political critic on Twitter, meant this to be taken at face value: that he was targeted for his last name and nothing else, and we should presumably expect further attacks on politicians surnamed Cox, Wang and Johnson. To me it fails the laugh test.]

The story muddles along with lack of proof, in part because no criminal investigation is called; the congressman cites the public interest, as he doesn’t want to waste the taxpayers’ money. Again: story—not the hugest story of the day, absolutely, but a story. Finally, further embarrassing—if apparently perfectly legal—photos come out, and the congressman admits lying. Story.

Are the media now predictably going nuts with said story? Fair to say. (Though that’s partly a matter of context. Like it or not, the incident significantly affects the New York mayoral election in two years, so in this town it’s legitimately a bigger story for a while.) But I don’t follow, in Greenwald’s view, at what point the press should have packed up the cameras and gone into radio silence. From the beginning (possibly allowing a smear of an innocent politician go ignored)? After his denial? Once the Facebook photos and chats started coming out?

Now I do think that Greenwald is absolutely right on some points that are going overlooked in all this: that it’s “repellent” for commentators to speak on behalf of Weiner’s wife, who has not spoken herself; that the story needs to be distinguished from those scandals in which a pol may have broken a law or violated professional ethics (Ensign, Spitzer, Edwards, &c.).

(I will disagree with Greenwald that the Weiner story is less newsworthy because it does not involve “hypocrisy.” I think that places the media in the role of moral arbiters, deciding who has more or less license to be unfaithful, and deciding for our audience what’s a good reason to care or not care about a sex scandal. And I’ve said that before in cases involving both Republicans and Democrats.)

Above all, I think Greenwald’s right that journalists, and all of us, should be up front about the big reason people pay attention to the sleazy details of stories like this: because they’re titillating, embarrassing, juicy tales about powerful people being tripped up by sex. Would journalists want to be held to the same standard? Probably not, but if a big TV news star tweeted out a similar picture under the same circumstances, I can’t imagine it not being news.

The media as usual is probably going to have a hard time finding a balance between ignoring the story and being consumed by it, at at some point before long, barring further developments, we need to let it go. And by all means voters ought to be arguing about whether this kind of behavior should have anything to do with a politician’s career. But news is news, and at bottom, this is a case of a tweet that can’t be untweeted.

[Update: On the other hand, as if to illustrate that there is definitely a point where wallowing in the details becomes gross, there is reportedly now a picture of Weiner’s genitals on the Internet (this link contains a censored photo, with a link to the NSFW version). According to radio shock jocks Opie and Anthony, the picture was flashed on a cellphone in-studio by Andrew Breitbart, who at Weiner’s Monday press conference said he was “trying to do the right thing” by not showing anyone the picture. I’m linking it here to show what the story has devolved to—but I’m going to go out on a limb and say none of us needs to see this.]