Spitzer and the Media: What Might Have Been

Remember all those stories during Monicagate about how being a serial philandering president might not necessarily be a bad thing? NBC's Bob Faw captured that zeitgeist, saying in 1998 that actually, Bill Clinton was in very good company.

"It might put Mr. Clinton’s conduct with a certain intern in a different light," he said, referring to allegations by liberal historians that Jefferson had sexual relations with his slave Sally Hemings. "After all, if Bill Clinton’s favorite President could end up on Mount Rushmore and the $2 dollar bill despite being sexually active with a subordinate [...] it does reveal another self-evident truth: that heroes, even Presidents, aren’t saints. They’re flesh and blood."

With that "journalism" in mind, it makes you wonder how liberal reporters would have covered the shenanigans of Eliot Spitzer had the New York Democratic governor decided to fight back instead of resigning. Luckily for the record, a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter named Fay Flam provided us with a perfect example of how it might have been. She begins:

Why would someone as rich and powerful as Eliot Spitzer put his family, his job and his promising future on the line for an alleged $4,000 date with a prostitute?

Is this pathological or inherent in human nature?

Scientists says it's more likely to be the latter. They attribute this kind of behavior to natural promiscuity combined with opportunity - along with a risk-taking personality common to men like Bill Clinton and John F Kennedy. It's what makes them seek office and what makes us want to vote for them.

Psychologist Christopher Ryan, author of "Sex in Prehistory," says the desire for sex with more than one person has always been there - for leaders and followers alike. "The desire is not a function of status or power - it's a question of availability."

It's all in his genes, in other words. On second thought, though, maybe it's really the public's fault:

Temple University psychologist Frank Farley suggests that while we're busy shaking our heads at Spitzer, we could stand to look back at ourselves and question why we vote for men like him. Risk-taking personalities are attracted to the uncertain world of politics, he said, and at the same time voters are attracted to them.

"We want our leaders to show some qualities of innovation," he said. "We want bold men willing to push their ideas."

We don't choose people riddled with anxieties to run our government or our corporations, though such people may act in a thoughtful, conscientious way. We loved John Kennedy for standing up to the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

"We don't want shrinking violets in these kinds of roles," Farley said.

Along with that package you get personal risk-taking - the affairs, the dabbling in solicitation and sometimes other crimes. "It's hard to get rid of it in politics," he said.

Makes perfect sense.

Having said all that, I don't think Flam's scientific arguments are completely flawed. The bigger issue isn't that--it's that an article like this would never be written trying to 'add context' to a Republican plagued by a sex scandal. Mark Foley or Bernard Kerik would have killed to get such press. Had he remained in office (a distinct possibility had he not burned so many bridges), Eliot Spitzer would have received it routinely.

Full article is here. Hat tip: Leighton Hart

Update March 13, 1:30. Another article in the same vein as Fay Flam's is in today's Washington Post. Just like hers, this one blames Spitzer's criminality on biology:

The correlation between infidelity and high status apparently exists across cultures and over huge swaths of time. Today, of course, you don't need to lead a tribe to achieve prestige or accumulate wealth; athletes, entertainers, CEOs are all high-status figures, and nothing suggests these people cheat in smaller numbers than politicians. We just don't hear about it as much when they do.

Update 9:52. Writing in today's Wall Street Journal, Kimberley Strassel writes about how things were between Spitzer and the press before the sex scandal. In short, they were what any politician could have asked for:

Journalists have spent the past two days asking how a man of Mr. Spitzer's stature would allow himself to get involved in a prostitution ring. The answer, in my mind, is clear. The former New York attorney general never believed normal rules applied to him, and his view was validated time and again by an adoring press. "You play hard, you play rough, and hopefully you don't get caught," said Mr. Spitzer two years ago. He never did get caught, because most reporters were his accomplices. [...]

From the start, the press corps acted as an adjunct of Spitzer power, rather than a skeptic of it. Many journalists get into this business because they want to see wrongs righted. Mr. Spitzer portrayed himself as the moral avenger. He was the slayer of the big guy, the fat cat, the Wall Street titan -- all allegedly on behalf of the little guy. The press ate it up, and came back for more. [...]

What the media never acknowledged is that somewhere along the line (say, his first day in public office) Mr. Spitzer became the big guy, the titan. He had the power to trample lives and bend the rules, while also burnishing his own political fortune. He was the one who deserved as much, if not more, scrutiny as onetime New York Stock Exchange chief Dick Grasso or former American International Group CEO Maurice "Hank" Greenberg.

What makes this more embarrassing for any self-respecting journalist is that Mr. Spitzer knew all this, and played the media like a Stradivarius. He knew what sort of storyline they'd be sympathetic to, and spun it. He knew, too, that as financial journalism has become more competitive, breaking news can make a career. He doled out scoops to favored reporters, who repaid him with allegiance. News organizations that dared to criticize him were cut off. After a time, few criticized anymore.

Read the rest.

Is it just me or does anyone else suspect that post-mortem pieces similar to Strassel's will abound should Barack Obama succeed in vanquishing his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton? (Thanks to ChrisMills.)

Update 10:17. Also from the adultery-is-ok department comes this embarrassing column from New York Post gossip maven Cindy Adams in which she not only condones extramarital affairs but also says they should not be a reason to break up a marriage, nor should the fact that Spitzer has been seeing prostitutes. (Hat tip: Sam)

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013