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Reporting the Spitzer Scandal: The Good, the Bad and the Outrageous

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's prostitution scandal has riveted the media since The New York Times broke the story around 2 p.m. on March 10.  Every broadcast evening news program led with the story, as did every morning news program on March 11.  In the reporting there have been some outrageous statements made by experts, observers and reporters alike.  And there have been a few statements that take into account broader issues of character, responsibility and morality. 


While the evening news reports addressed Spitzer's reputation as a crime fighting crusader and speculated about political costs and whether he'd resign, the morning news programs also dealt with the issue of why men, especially powerful men, cheat. And to make the case each network indulged in a video parade of prominent adulterers: Bill Clinton, Gary Hart, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, Larry Craig, David Vitter, James McGreevey, Eliot Spitzer.


The Outrageous

 

Perhaps the most outrageous statement uttered in the coverage of the story came from liberal icon Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Law professor, who appeared on CBS Evening News.  Spitzer was one of Dershowitz's students at Harvard.


I feel terrible for Eliot and his family but let's put this in perspective. It's a man and a prostitute. In most parts of the world, this wouldn't even be a story. If every lawmaker and law enforcer who broke the law even in minor ways had to resign, we would have very few people in public office.

  

On NBC's Today, anthropologist Helen Fisher said Spitzer's “high cheek bone and very heavy brow ridge” were “signs of extremely high testosterone” which meant he was very aggressive and very sexual.  Fisher also said cheating happens in each of the 42 societies that she has studied, and that 33 percent of men and 25 percent of women in America will cheat on their spouses. According to Fisher, cheating is:


…Darwinian and evolutionary.  For millions of years those people were adulterous did end up getting some genetic payoffs, having more babies, passing this tendency along to us.


The Bad


On The CBS Early Show, host Maggie Rodriquez anchored a conversation about why powerful men cheat.  One of her guests, sex expert Sari Locker, Ph.D., maintained that powerful men cheat because, “First they want sex from someone other than their wife.  …. Often it's very specific types of sex …. There's no emotional connection.”  


ABC's Claire Shipman, reporting on Good Morning America, found an expert who suggested that bad behavior was really a function of how the brain was wired.  She concluded what initially looked to be a promising report on why men cheat with this statement:


So, it's a properly working prefrontal cortex that helps most of us pause and say, maybe I shouldn't try that. But until we can get brain scans of all candidates, politicians and preachers, this sort of behavior is something we're likely to see over and over again in public life.


The Good

 

It is refreshing when somebody calls a spade a spade.  Jeff Greenfield, by far, had the most exacting comment in all of the coverage examined for this story.  Appearing in the 7:00 half hour of CBS's Early Show Greenfield was discussing the matter with Rodriquez.


RODRIGUEZ: And also, the perceived hypocrisy of it all, the fact that he was dubbed “Mr. Clean,” he cracked down on corruption, prosecuted the same crimes he's accused now of committing. I think that people just, you know, don't like that.


GREENFIELD: Yeah, I would not even be so kind as to say perceived hypocrisy.


RODRIGUEZ: Alright.


GREENFIELD: I'd call this hypocrisy.


RODRIGUEZ: Outright.


GREENFIELD: Outright, the blatant Level One, 'Def Con Five' hypocrisy. You're quite right; he put people in jail for running a prostitution ring. And -- that and also not just hypocrisy, but the sheer jaw-dropping hubris, arrogance. How did he think he was going to get away with it? Does he assume that the people he was with, the women, didn't recognize one of the more visible political figures? The whole thing just is a head-scratcher in a lot of ways.


Psychologist Jeff Gardere, on NBC's Today said, “I think it can be a very, very selfish act.  I think many men in their own way want to validate their manhood … so they look for variety.  They look for excitement.”


On CBS's Early Show, Washington Post columnist Sally Quinn seemed to be most angry with Mrs. Spitzer for standing next to her husband at the press conference.


The wife is always standing there while the husband is apologizing. I look at those women, and I think … they might as well be Taliban women with scarves over their heads standing there because not once has any woman ever said, 'this is not acceptable.' And the message that's coming across, because these women stand by the men and because they accept it, the message comes across to young women and young men as well, no matter whether you lie or cheat or humiliate your wife, it's okay. You can grow up to be president. You can grow up to be senator or governor, and it's okay.


Quinn went on to speculate that wives have motivations to stand by their husbands because “these wives' power is derivative.  I mean Hillary Clinton would not be running for president if her husband had not been running for president.”


On NBC's Nightly News, New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine, a Democrat, said, “I think all of us in public life have to recognize that our own personal behavior ends up undermining the trust that people need to have in their political leaders.”  Corzine, of course, nearly lost his life when his limousine was involved in a high speed crash while he wasn't  wearing a seat belt.


On Today, reporter Janet Shamlian sought the opinion of an infidelity expert, Ruth Houston, who didn't cut Spitzer any slack. “They do it because of a sense of entitlement. They do it because they view it as a status symbol. They do it for the thrill of the chase. They do it because they can get away with it.”


Today also brought in Dina Matos, the former wife of James McGreevey, the former New Jersey governor who resigned when his homosexual affair was made public.  Perhaps more than any other voice in the cacophony of Spitzer scandal coverage, Matos' take was the most informed.


MATT LAUER: You kind of are a member of a strange club in some ways. I was in the office this morning, Dina. Within the first ten minutes in the kitchen and the makeup room, I must have had ten people say the same thing. They all said the same thing. Why did Mrs. Spitzer feel the need, why do these political wives often feel the need to stand at that press conference by their husbands, who have just disgraced them?


MATOS: Well, it's a very personal matter. For me, I thought about my daughter. This is a man that I loved, that I had taken a vow to stand by in good times and in bad. And that was the right decision for me at the time. It was very personal. It was not about the politics.


Diane Sawyer, on ABC's Good Morning America, summed up the feelings expressed on all of the network news shows, and perhaps the feelings of most Americans who are being bombarded by the incessant coverage of the scandal:


It's a human story, it is always a family story too, and the first thing we think about with Silda Spitzer standing by the governor yesterday is that gallery – of stoic but suffering women who stood alongside reeling husbands back over the years. Their silent faces a testimony to so much that we have all witnessed together. … It raises again that human question, how does someone in public office think they can get away with the kind of activity that eventually causes these scenes?  How do these high-profile politicians think they can defy the odds and not get caught?


In covering a scandal like this the media naturally look to many sources and opinions to fill air time.  In Spitzer's case reporters have jumped on his reputation as a “straight arrow” to point out the hypocrisy and moral failing he has exhibited.  In doing so they rightly raise the character issue.  However, character isn't something to be talked about only with regard to “straight arrows.”  Character is something that is important to address at every level and with every public leader.   Perhaps the public outrage that has been expressed over the Spitzer scandal will show the media that America does care about character.  In an election year that is a lesson the press should take to heart.


Kristen Fyfe is senior writer at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.