Tuned In

The Craigslist Congressman Story: Whose Hypocrisy?

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In many political sex-exposé stories, or follow-up reports on the same, there is often what I think of as the “Why you don’t have to feel guilty about caring about this story” paragraph. This paragraph generally lays out the pol’s public positions and history, which, either directly or by some stretch of logic, make his or her actions hypocritical—and thus, implicitly, worthy of public scrutiny as such, and not just because it is just really, really awesome to read stories about politicians getting caught with their pants down. Or in the case of Rep. Christopher Lee, shirts off.

Gawker’s remarkable story that broke news of the married GOP representative’s alleged exploits on Craiglist—and got him to resign within a day—is a juicy read and a big get in itself. But it also includes something I would not necessarily expect to read in a Gawker story: a “Why you don’t have to feel guilty…” paragraph.

Eight paragraphs, and several excruciating email excerpts, into the story, we get this: “Yesterday, we reached out to Rep. Lee, whose support for ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ and vote to reject federal abortion funding suggests a certain comfort with publicly scrutinizing others’ sex lives.”

Now, I’m not even going to get into analyzing that line of argument. Maybe it’s legitimate, maybe it’s not. (I am going to go out on a limb and assume you do not come to this blog for my thoughts on gays in the military and abortion-funding legislation.) But is it the reason Gawker ran the story? Would it have not run the same story about another politician who voted the other way on the bills?

It’s possible. I tend to doubt it. In any case, it’s the sort of rationale (as opposed to rationalization, because I’m not a mind-reader) that I would not expect from Gawker. Its boss, Nick Denton, whatever you may think about him as a media mogul, tends to be extremely no-BS about chasing juicy scoops. Gawker and its network of sites run them—scandalous cellphone pictures, what have you—because people want to read them. A lot.

Because, come on! A congressman taking a shirtless cellphone picture of himself and putting it on Craigslist? Hell yes, I am totally going to read that story, Republican or Democrat or The Rent Is Too Damn High Party! What am I, made of stone? This story was, simply, an awesome scoop for Maureen O’Connor and Gawker. And I would have loved to see Gawker simply, directly state that that is why the story—a coup that apparently other outlets were chasing—is there. Hypocrisy or no, this vote or that vote.

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that you, or anyone else, should not make a judgment about Lee’s hypocrisy (or anyone else’s). If you think the hypocrisy is the crime here, that’s your call. What you think makes one sex scandal important and not another to you is your business.

What bothers me is media outlets making that judgment, either sincerely or as a fig leaf. Because essentially that means the press setting itself up as a moral arbiter, deciding whose public positions make him or her a hypocrite for sleeping around, and who gets a free pass because their voting records are correct and compatible. I said this, too, when the John Edwards affair story broke:

My problem with this argument—besides the fact that it’s usually a phony excuse—is that it means the media is prescribing morality. Essentially, it says that hypocrisy is worse than infidelity, or at least that it’s a more legitimate reason not to vote for someone. Why? Who appointed us Pope? Some people see sex scandals as a reason to vote against a politician only if it shows him or her to be a phony; others see the infidelity as an indictment in itself. It’s not for us to decide that one of these systems of morality is better than another. (Put another way: hypocrisy may or may not make a scandal more damaging, but that doesn’t make it more newsworthy.)

Once you go down this road—this congressman’s cheating is newsworthy, but this one is not—how do you decide who is sufficiently free of “moral” judgments in his or her voting record? If we can agree that trying to cheat on your wife online is an immoral act, are you only a hypocrite if your voting record judges others’ sexual behavior? What if you’ve criticized the morality of someone’s business behavior, or parenting, or entertainment programming, or foreign-policy priorities, or domestic priorities? (Not the same thing? Agreed! But nor, unless I’m mistaken, did Lee sponsor a bill making it illegal to cheat on your wife.)

Which “moral” stances exactly allow one to get some on Craiglist without public attention and which don’t? And do you really want Gawker—or the New York Times, CNN, Fox, TIME or any media outlet—making that call?

Personally, yeah, I think that a politician who votes for laws on the basis of sexual morality, then commits adultery or tries to, is a hypocrite. (It also makes absolutely no difference to my vote. But if it does to yours, that’s fine by me.) Guess what? I also think that a lot of faithful politicians are hypocrites, in innumerable ways. There are also hypocrites among us nonpoliticians, who enjoy the moral downfalls of their political enemies while excusing similar failings in their political allies.

And then there are the hypocrites in the press, who look for high-minded reasons to cover scandal stories, when the real attraction is simply seeing someone being brought low.