Dialogue: Let's Talk About Sex

When should the media cover politicians' sexual improprieties?

Adam Serwer: So, shortly after Arnold Schwarzenegger left office, we found out that The Governator fathered a child out of wedlock with an employee. Did the media fall down on the job here?

Patrick Caldwell: No. The press already wrote about Arnold's womanizing past when he first ran for governor. Does the revelation of a kid change how people should view his performance as governor?

Adam: Being unfaithful isn't relevant to governing. But people who give money or vote for a candidate deserve to know if there's a time bomb in their candidate's past.

Patrick: Those time bombs don't always ruin a candidate's future. David Vitter paid for prostitutes and won re-election in a conservative state. Voters cared more about his hard-right views than whom he slept with.

Adam: That's true more for Republicans than for Democrats. Being a conservative immunizes one from criticism by those who would normally be the most outraged about it.

Patrick: Where is the line? Mainstream outlets shouldn't look to Star and Us Weekly for guidelines on these kinds of stories.

Adam: We don't need several hours a day of cable news bloviating about "The Sperminator." It's one thing to cheat on your partner--that's your business. But it really stops being that way once some other issues come into play.

Patrick: Of course. Some instances are clearly newsworthy. The rape charges against Dominique Strauss-Kahn clearly fall beyond what we're talking about. The reporting on John Ensign is a more typical case. The important part wasn't his sexual habits; it was the fact that his hush-money payoffs probably broke the law. However, most news accounts avoided the serious parts and used scandals to titillate their readers.

Adam: Is it really either/or? Should the media ignore evidence of impropriety if it's of a sexual nature?

Patrick: It's more a matter of whether it's an impropriety than whether something is sexual. Politicians of all stripes do questionable things in their personal lives. The only reason infidelities come to light is because sex sells.

Adam: But doesn't John Edwards prove that sometimes they don't come to light precisely because the media thinks it would be gross to look at them?

Patrick: That's the beauty of the Internet age. Edwards and Schwarzenegger were caught by gossip outlets, though the scandals didn't get widely accepted until after the mainstream media began covering them. Let political reporters spend their time digging into the important stuff, and if there's something truly outrageous, TMZ can file the initial story.

Adam: Well, they won't be shamed out of looking, that's for sure.

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