Tuned In

The Anthony Weiner Mystery: A Tough News Package to Handle

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Was Anthony Weiner framed, or did he self-twimmolate? Was it his package or was it hackage? We don’t know, and after a round of TV-news interviews yesterday, we may be even farther from knowing.

The controversy over the Twitter photo of a tumescent man in undies posted to Weiner’s Twitter feed grew more frenzied after the weekend, as Weiner’s responses to press questions grew ever more testy. Yesterday, the Brooklyn congressman changed tack, lining up interviews and fulfilling America’s longtime fantasy of getting to listen to Wolf Blitzer talk about underwear.

The mixed message Weiner gave, to Blitzer, Luke Russert et al. was, first, that he did not send the picture; he was “hacked” or “pranked” or the victim of a joke, presumably by a political adversary. But was that his pelvis in the shot? His odd but consistently worded answer: he could not say “with certitude” if it was or not, but “pictures can be manipulated, pictures can be dropped in and inserted.”

Funnier men than I have already commented on the idea of a man not being able to identify his own nethers from an aerial vantage point (see video, above). But with a story already turning into a Philip Roth farce by way of a Samberg-Timberlake viral video, let’s say that Weiner’s puzzling answer (is he saying someone Photoshopped two inches of his bare leg onto another guy’s underwear?) is not going to end the questions.

I should say up front that, as a New Yorker who would potentially vote in the 2013 mayoral campaign Weiner is purportedly planning to run in, this whole thing is utterly irrelevant to my vote.* It’s also perfectly legitimate for another voter to care about it, and in any event, whether I personally care does not determine whether this is news.

Because news it is. If it was a hoax, it’s news because a U.S. Congressman was the victim of a hacking incident online that allowed someone to transmit a photo in his name. And if a U.S. Congressman exposed himself in bulging boxer briefs in a public forum it’s news, because—come on!

It’s not, in either case, the biggest political news of our era, and where our media machine has trouble it’s finding that spot between virtually ignoring a story and covering it to death. The story broke over the Memorial Day weekend and spent most of the holiday fermenting outside mainstream outlets. By yesterday, conversely, it was suddenly the thing to talk about. (The popular perception is that this kind of story gives media outlets the sort of condition depicted in certain Twitter photos. And yes, ratings don’t lie, but at least some regular political reporters seem to have to be dragged reluctantly to sex-scandal stories, especially ones where the facts are murky—until it’s clear that everyone else is doing it.)

If Weiner has any p.r. advantage in dealing with this, it’s that it is simply very hard for anyone to talk about the story or conduct an interview without sounding ridiculous. (“Penis” is to American English as “snow” allegedly is to Inuit.) Blitzer, for his part, didn’t help his cause by launching into a fishing expedition as to whether and why Weiner followed (i.e. subscribed to the tweets of) a porn star on Twitter. This matters why? God help us if raunchy Twitter follows become the new “Are you now or have you ever been…” of politics.

And the jokes flow easily because, whatever the implications of what did or didn’t happen, the young woman follower in question is a fan of Weiner and is not complaining about his behavior. Meanwhile, another factor feeding the discussion is the ample amount of reason for suspicion on all sides of the story. For instance, the story was “broken” and advanced by political nemeses of Weiner: Andrew Breitbart, of the decontextualized ACORN and Shirley Sherrod videos, and a Twitter user with a long history of antagonism toward the Congressman. (Slate has a good roundup of the reasons, technical and otherwise, for skepticism in both directions on this story.)

The truth lies in 0’s and 1’s that we don’t have access to. But if the Twitter scenario is a new one, the arc is pretty familiar: sex starts the story, puzzling answers keep it alive. The Good Wife writers, your first third-season episode is already written.

*(Disclosure: I think—though I cannot recall with certitude—that I voted for Weiner in the 2005 mayoral primary. I’m not sure if I would vote for him again, but because of issues located far outside his pants.)