The real scandal is the media frenzy
explains how--and why--private lives have become a public spectacle.
MORE THAN two weeks into the Anthony Weiner (non-)sex scandal, the mainstream media and politicians on both sides of the aisle have worked themselves up into an orgy of simultaneously prurient and righteous moralism.
"Respectable" media outlets have published transcripts of e-mail exchanges between the New York City congressman and the women he met online. Calls for his resignation have mounted--with Barack Obama joining the chorus on Monday. And Weiner has been put through the ritualistic humiliation common to Washington scandals--of apologizing for his transgressions and announcing that he is seeking treatment.
So what's the big deal?
Did Weiner introduce legislation to ban sending sexually explicit text messages and images via the Internet--and then got caught in the act in a display of gross hypocrisy? Nope.
Have women come forward alleging harassment or assault? Nope.
Was he involved in illegal activity in any form? No again.
Instead, the august U.S. media establishment has spent two-and-a-half weeks picking over every sordid detail of Anthony Weiner's private, consensual and legal sexual activities. And in doing so, they fulfilled the wildest hopes of right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart, who engineered this scandal. Breitbart couldn't have been anywhere near as successful without the collaboration of the mainstream media machine.
You might remember Breitbart as the man who carried out smear campaigns against the community organization ACORN and former Obama administration official Shirley Sherrod. He's notorious for doctoring and distorting evidence with his own conservative spin in order to take down his liberal targets. But now he's enjoying a moment of public rehabilitation, courtesy of the respectable press.
THE WEINER story is so mired in muck that it can be easy to get lost in each new twist. But it's worth tracing its origins in order to understand who exactly is behind this scandal--and why the media and political establishment so willingly jumped on board.
Several months ago, a group of conservative operatives--using the Twitter handle #bornfreecrew--began obsessively monitoring Weiner's Twitter account. Their modus operandi was to harass women who were followed by Weiner. In some cases, they directly contacted women who had been communicating with Weiner and warned them to stay away.
Eventually, one of right-wingers was able to get a screenshot of the now-infamous image of Weiner in his boxers that he accidentally sent over his public Twitter feed. Though Weiner realized his mistake within four minutes and took it down, the photo had already been re-Tweeted and sent to Breitbart, who promptly published it on his website.
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Around the same time, Breitbart was put in contact with Megan Broussard, one of the women with whom Weiner shared sexual e-mail and phone exchanges. Breitbart connected her with ABC News, which ran an interview with her and bought her photos, e-mail transcripts and phone records for an undisclosed sum, though it is known to be as much as $15,000.
Why Broussard came forward remains unclear, except that she expressed concern her private life was about to be put on display, and she wanted some control over how that took place.
So the biggest (non-)sex scandal of the year was brought to us courtesy of a cyber-stalking campaign by the most savage elements of the right wing. And ever since, the media have breathlessly repeated every unsubstantiated insinuation as if it were confirmed fact.
The crescendo of allegations and innuendo never seems to end. First, there were the stories about how Weiner's wife, Huma Abedin, was pregnant, and therefore he should resign to protect her reputation. Then we were told an ethics investigation was necessary because Weiner used his government-issued Blackberry to take the photos.
More recently, the media were filled with stories suggesting an improper Twitter relationship with a 17-year-old--which would be a real issue if not for the fact that the young woman, her family and the local police have all concluded that there was no improper conduct in the communications between the two.
The haze caused by the media's wall-to-wall coverage makes it all the more necessary to return to these facts: Not one of the women with whom Weiner had Internet exchanges has alleged any form of harassment. All of the exchanges appear to have been of a consensual nature. None were illegal.
In short, there is no evidence that anything about this scandal is anybody's business but Weiner, the women involved and Weiner's partner.
Despite this, the media has carried out a moral crusade against Weiner that may very well drive him from office, though to this point he has stopped short of resigning. In the process, not only the political hit men of the right wing, but the most respected names in the U.S. media have trampled on the privacy rights of the women involved.
The private lives of individuals have been turned into a public spectacle--that's the real scandal. As Salon.com's Glenn Greenwald wrote:
Reporters who would never dare challenge powerful political figures who torture, illegally eavesdrop, wage illegal wars or feed at the trough of sleazy legalized bribery suddenly walk upright--like proud peacocks with their feathers extended--pretending to be hard-core adversarial journalists as they collectively kick a sexually humiliated figure stripped of all importance.
As repugnant as the media response has been, the craven posturing of the Democratic Party leadership is more despicable in some ways. Weiner's colleagues have wholeheartedly participated in the pretense that his behavior is uniquely immoral--despite the abundant evidence that he was set up by the right wing's professional slanderers, and that he did nothing illegal.
Yet House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama and other party leaders claim that Weiner must go because his case has become a distraction. It is only a distraction because they allowed it to be so.
Anthony Weiner is no hero to any socialist. He is one of the most reliable defenders of Israel in Congress. He has provided a progressive cover for the Democratic Party's pro-corporate policies on health care and other issues. That's what he should be held accountable for--not a (non-)sex scandal engineered by the Republican right.
ONE OF most sickening aspects of this entire spectacle has been the media attempt to justify their moral posturing as a defense of women's rights.
The hypocrisy could not be more rank. From cable television news or mainstream newspapers, you'd think that the biggest problem that women face is male infidelity. But there is a real assault on women and their rights--and the media don't cover it.
In New York City, the former chief of the International Monetary Fund, who stands accused of sexually assaulting a woman while she was doing her job, is comfortably situated in a $13,000-a-month townhouse. He is spending upwards of a million dollars on law firms to dig up dirt on the woman in an attempt to blame his victim.
Also in New York, two members of the New York Police Department were just acquitted of charges that they raped an intoxicated woman in her apartment--despite an abundance of evidence that they did commit the crime. There are 4,400 pieces of anti-abortion legislation under consideration in legislatures across the country.
If the media wanted something to investigate, they could talk about what it's like for a maid to stand up to one of the most powerful men in the world. Or what will happen to the tens of thousands of women who find themselves deprived of the right to choose abortion. Or how so many women are re-victimized when they report a sexual assault.
Instead, the media prefer to revel in the titillating details of one man's personal sexual life--and call it journalism. As Greenwald wrote:
Can one even imagine how much different--and better--our political culture would be if our establishment media devoted even a fraction of the critical scrutiny and adversarial energy it devoted to the Weiner matter to things that actually matter? But that won't happen, because the people who comprise that press corps, with rare exception, are both incapable of focusing on things that matter and uninterested in doing so.
It's a sick society that manages to combine the incredible commodification of sex with extreme moral puritanism. This helps to justify a status quo in which we can see half-naked women surrounding us on billboards, but teenagers can't get access to accurate sex education or birth control. The sanctity of marriage and the family is upheld to help justify second-class citizenship for those who live outside the "norms."
It would be tempting to say that the Weiner scandal is just a massive distraction from the very real and urgent news stories that deserve attention. And this is true.
But there is more at stake. The real winners in this (non-)sex scandal are Andrew Breitbart and his conservative pals. Once again, the right wing has managed to manipulate the story and set the agenda in U.S. politics. The real scandal is that the media--and far too many liberals--have allowed them to do so.