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Scandals have media sizzling, public shrugging

July 22, 2013

By Michael Wolff

images (6)All the media outlets in New York, as well as many nationally, have expressed feelings of disdain and grossness about the candidacies of sex scandal personalities Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer.

Yet, Spitzer, despite the constant rehashing of his expensive prostitution habit, overwhelmingly leads his opponent. And Weiner, notwithstanding the relentless jokes about his private part tweets, jumped to the top of a crowded field with little effort.

The former New York governor and the former Brooklyn congressman are hardly the only sex-tainted politicians around the country to have emerged from media opprobrium and mockery to flourish in renewed careers.

Baffling the media, Mark Sanford, the South Carolina governor who had an operatic affair, is now in Congress. Bill Clinton, of course, continues to stand as a monument to dashed media expectations.

So how come the media is so stubbornly out of step with its audience and, evidently, the new political mores?

Even the ever-disapproving New York Times has taken puzzled note of this phenomenon, the success of sexual miscreants, without, however, taking itself to account.

For news organizations, the triumphal return of politicians turned sexual villains is a confusing development, not least of all because scandal is such a part of what newsrooms live on and one of the elements that rings the cash register in the news business. It’s the time-honored way of selling sex while deploring it.

Sexual scandal, all journalists understand, speaks directly and powerfully to audience prejudices. Sexual disgrace represents consensus. It’s one of the few things we reliably agree on. Gross guys warrant their humiliation and deserve their comeuppance. America (even New York City!) is not a live-and-let-live society. This is not Europe.

Except that, actually, it seems more and more like it.

Scandal does not tank your career any more. Scandal is, in many instances, no more than a résumé item that needs to be explained and integrated into a life story. (There’s a large business of crisis managers and media consultants who specialize in this). Scandal is, arguably, an advantage, filling out that life story, adding a human dimension to it, and best of all, providing a bit of drama and a leap in name recognition.

In other words, news organizations are awkwardly finding themselves doing the exact opposite of what they believe they’re doing. Instead of representing the community’s voice of moral censure, they may actually be promoting the very careers of the people whose supposed news value is that their careers seem to be ending.

Newsrooms have not only misread their audience, they have misconstrued the actual nature of the news itself. These careers are not finished, they’ve just taken a novelistic turn, and are the more compelling for it.

Eliot Sptizer

Eliot Sptizer

The contrast between the public’s nonchalance and even relatively fond embrace of Spitzer and Weiner, and the media’s revulsion is not just stark, but makes for a confusing parallel reality.

Spitzer was reviled (actually, re-reviled) and dismissed by every media outlet in New York on his surprise announcement that he was running for the fairly humble spot of city controller. Virtually overnight, with the first poll, he became the likely winner.

Weiner, in news parlance, is, at best, a comic contender, as well as a local embarrassment; except, it turns out, he’s also a very likely mayor.

Why is the media so angry about the returns of Spitzer and Weiner? Not, evidently, on its equanimous readers’ and viewers’ behalf. Its anger is on its own account.

Spitzer and Weiner, with their cohorts around the country, are a slap in the media’s face. Scandals, after all, are largely media created. You can hardly have a scandal without the media treating it as scandal — Spitzer’s and Weiner’s being among the tastiest of recent years. There’s a vested interest here. The media is defending its own work. The easy rehabilitation of the badly behaved refutes, if not the facts, certainly much of the media’s damnation.

While the media has been the instrument of running the offenders out of office, the public wants them back. Read the rest in USA Today.

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