Entry from June 22, 2009

Another week, another scandal. Now it’s Senator John Ensign of Nevada who — do we really need to know this? — is said to have cheated on his wife. In fact, he says so himself. Why would he suddenly go public with what, apparently, all parties concerned had agreed to keep mercifully private for over a year? The media’s carefully-phrased speculation is that somebody — their hints point to a former aide who is also the cuckolded husband of the senator’s former paramour — attempted to blackmail him, and he felt he had to get out in front of the story. So much so, indeed, that it was necessary for him to miss “a vote on tourism legislation considered important to Nevada’s casino industry,” according to The Washington Post, that well-known media champion of Nevada’s casino industry.

His telltale absence may or may not be bad for Nevada. It’s certainly bad for Senator Ensign. But, look on the bright side: it’s great for the media! Though the “scandal” may have fallen off the front page by now, this morning Chris Cillizza leads with it on page two of the Post, where he offers a robust assessment of its likely effects on the electoral prospects of the Republicans generally and Senator Ensign himself — three years from now, when he’s up for re-election. In the meantime, however, it might also affect the re-election campaigns of David Vitter — for who can forget the “scandal” of his entanglement with the “D.C. Madam,” which he may have thought he had put behind him — and Senator Ensign’s fellow Nevadan, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Senator Reid, like Senator Vitter, is up for re-election in 2010 and had seemed to be in some trouble. The blow that Senator Ensign’s confession represents to the Nevada Republican party can only do him good, thinks Chris Cillizza.

Such savvy analysis, apparently focusing solely on the political horse race, offers the media a fig-leaf of justification for reporting on a salacious story that appeals to an ever-increasing prurience among the gossip-hungry public. Scandal obviously puts money in the media’s pockets but otherwise has zero legitimate public interest to recommend it. Oh, except for the hypocrisy, if that is what it is, involved in the senator’s once having called on Bill Clinton and Larry Craig to resign over sexual pecadillos that involved, unlike his own, illegal behavior. Or alleged illegal behavior. People have a right to know if their senator is a hypocrite, right? Or at least if he is suspected of being one by the media, our collective hammer of hypocrisy in public life.

But if it is not hypocrisy to report a story in which you yourself are a major actor without ever mentioning your role, it seems to me to be something rather worse than hypocrisy — and that is what the media do routinely, just as they are doing it here. Without the scandal culture they have fostered and encouraged until it has reached its present fever pitch, the would-be blackmailer (if there is one) wouldn’t have known that he had a ready market for his wares in the media. Without that market, he wouldn’t have threatened to shop them around and so forced Senator Ensign to come forward to forestall him, thus supplying the nation with water-cooler conversation for days — if not weeks or months to come — as well as political reporters with new material for handicapping the next races. And don’t forget jokes for the late night comedians, who can feed off the information for, literally, years.

What a lot they and their media pals have to thank our beloved Senator Kennedy for! Mr Cillizza’s “Morning Fix” today also includes a moist-eyed tribute to the “transcendent figure” of the Massachusetts senator and his passion for government-run health-care and somehow never mentions all that he has done to make possible the journalistic gentrification of scandal. The Bork hearings (1987) begot the Clarence Thomas hearings (1991) which begot the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal (1998) which begot the permanent state of scandal free-for-all which has prevailed ever since and, in doing so, has also done so much permanently to erase the distinction between news and entertainment. You think the mainstream media — a term that their tabloidization is rapidly causing to lose all meaning — are in trouble now? Just imagine the state that they would be in without the great boon that the lion of Massachusetts and his senatorial allies first provided them with over 20 years ago.

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