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06.12.11

9 Ways to Survive a Sex Scandal

Why is Anthony Weiner getting decimated for sins that other politicians have skated past? Howard Kurtz explains why the press savages selectively – and outlines the new rules of survival.

On the afternoon that Anthony Weiner tearfully confessed to all manner of X-rated misadventures, I furiously scribbled notes and banged out a story for The Daily Beast—one of several on a seamy saga that, as they say, has nothing but readers.

Did much the same—writing, editing, blabbing—when Arnold Schwarzenegger, Dominique Strauss-Kahn and John Edwards became tabloid fodder over the past few weeks, interviewing everyone from the Los Angeles Times reporter who disclosed Arnold’s love child to the lawyer for Andrew Young, who claimed to be the dad of Edwards’ love child as part of one of that bizarre coverup.

In short, I am not a conscientious objector in these matters.  I can defend every one of these stories, which involve public officials and questionable-to-serious allegations.

But still. There are times when this just makes us all nauseous.

Once the mighty media machine clanks into action, it chews up human beings without a trace of remorse. Family members are collateral damage. Moral misdemeanors become felonies and felonies become capital crimes, with the perpetrators vilified in the public square.

How did we come to this?

“It’s easy to be puritanical and sacrosanct and say this stuff doesn’t deserve attention, but the reality is it does,” says Eliot Spitzer, who has repeatedly led off his CNN show with the story (and had me as a guest). “It is something that affects our politics and our sense of who we are as a community.”

Spitzer, of course, grappled with his own sex scandal (more on that later), but says he still has a responsibility to ask tough questions about Weiner, a friend from New York Democratic circles. “I was on that side of it,” Spitzer told me. “I didn’t expect or ask for sympathy.”

“It’s easy to be puritanical and sacrosanct and say this stuff doesn’t deserve attention, but the reality is it does,” says Eliot Spitzer.

CBS has a different approach. Weiner staged his tear-filled news conference two hours before Scott Pelley made his debut as anchor of the CBS Evening News. Pelley led with stories about Iraq and Afghanistan, relegating the Weiner saga to the third block, and has not revisited it.

“It wasn’t complicated for us,” says CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager. “It’s not that Weiner’s unimportant, he’s in a key position. But come on—his fessing up was not the most important story of the day. There really wasn’t a lot of debate about it.”

Most of the rest of the media world has been wallowing in the Weiner mess. The fact that he sent a handful of messages, albeit fairly innocuous, to a 17-year-old girl has further weakened his position, prompting Nancy Pelosi to belatedly urge him to resign. 

But if you take Weiner’s word that the rest of it was all cybersex -- that he never met any of the women -- then he has been turned into Public Enemy No. 1 without so much as having an affair, unlike a long parade of other public figures.

Why do some of these people survive—Weiner is still insisting he won’t resign—while others go down in flames? It boils down to nine factors.

Personality Matters: Bill Clinton used his political charm to outmaneuver his enemies over the Monica Lewinsky mess, and it didn’t hurt that the country was peaceful and prosperous on his watch. Pundits who had pronounced him toast were astounded that he left office with high approval ratings.

Hypocrisy Matters: Eliot Spitzer resigned as New York governor two days after the onetime prosecutor who had gone after moral turpitude was found to have patronized high-priced hookers – an illegal habit. His background helped seal his fate.

Spouses Matter: Mark Sanford served out his term as South Carolina governor after admitting he had slipped away to Argentina to visit his soul mate, but his wife Jenny’s decision to dump him ended his political career. Hillary, as everyone remembers, stood by her cheating man.

Timing Matters: No one knows whether Schwarzenegger would have been forced from the governor’s office if the baby he fathered with a housekeeper had been disclosed while he was still in office. The details of Newt Gingrich’s affair with a House staffer, now his third wife, did not fully emerge until after he was no longer in Congress. Had he been outed while leading the impeachment drive against Clinton, the story would have gone nuclear.

Geography Matters: David Vitter was able to lie low, and win reelection as a senator from Louisiana, despite turning up on the D.C. madam’s phone list. Had Vitter been from New York, the tabloid press would have hounded him day and night with intrusive tactics and screaming headlines. The same goes for Larry Craig in Idaho after the “wide stance” incident in a restroom, and for John Ensign in Nevada after he acknowledged an affair with the wife of a top Senate aide. Can you imagine what the New York Post would have done with that, and the revelation that Ensign’s parents had coincidentally given the ex-aide a $96,000 “gift”? No way he could have hung on for two more years. 

Denials Matter: Weiner’s brazen lying about what he had done in a blizzard of television interviews let journalists off the hook for having to decide the newsworthiness of his online escapades. It was about the credibility, not the crudeness. Exhibit A: John Edwards, who dismissed allegations that he was carrying on with his campaign videographer as being typical National Enquirer trash. It would be two more years, and many more Enquirer stories, before Edwards would be forced admit that he lied about the affair and then the out-of-wedlock child. It didn’t help that his wife Elizabeth, a centerpiece of his campaign, was dying of cancer at the time (see Spouses Matter).

Money Matters: Edwards wound up getting indicted for using campaign donors’ cash to hide Rielle Hunter in an ill-fated coverup that featured a close aide claiming to be the baby daddy.

Visuals Matter: Chris Lee resigned his House seat about 12 minutes after the world got to see that shirtless photo he sent a woman on Craigslist—which, in light of Weinergate, seems downright tame. Of course, I suspect there were other photos out there and Lee just decided to stop the bleeding.

The Weiner saga went viral with the bulging underwear photo that the Brooklyn Democrat claimed he hadn’t sent a 21-year-old college student. More pictures surfaced after his confession, in which Weiner showed off his gym-rat chest and held up a sign labeled “Me,” giving television and tabloids the shots they need.  

The coup de grace was the unclothed penis photo that conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart promised not to release—until he was deceived by the Opie & Anthony radio guys, who took a picture of his picture. We already knew there was a photo of this member of Congress, but somehow the blurry evidence—plastered across the Net—took the tale to a new level.  

A decade ago, I doubt that many news organizations would have run parts of the sexually explicit messages between Weiner and Las Vegas blackjack dealer Lisa Weiss once they were obtained by Radar Online. But the notion of media outlets serving as gatekeepers has largely vanished in an age of one-click access to just about anything.

“When people want information they have more places where they can go get it,” Radar Editor David Perel told me. “Lots of news organizations are realizing the public doesn’t need to be coddled.”

But even when what you’ve done has been fully exposed, there is a ninth rule: 

Shamelessness Matters: Imagine the intestinal fortitude it takes to withstand the global humiliation of seeing your below-the-waist photos and X-rated texts flashed around the world. Think of the willpower involved in resisting calls from your own party to get the hell out of Washington because you are a national embarrassment. Consider seeing yourself branded a PERV POL and WEASEL in your local papers day after day. Most men would fold like a cheap suit. So far, at least, Weiner hasn’t.

Of course, one could also attribute that stance to utter selfishness, the kind of preening self-importance that gets politicians in trouble in the first place. Look what Weiner is doing to his wife, Huma, whose pregnancy warranted global headlines that placed her at the center of this cringeworthy melodrama. This intensely private woman now finds her motives and conduct are now being debated and dissected by people she has never met.  

Which brings me back to the media. Whatever the importance of the Weiner controversy, haven’t we long since passed the point when it’s become blood sport? Aren’t the nonstop cable segments and articles and blog postings an attempt to exploit the misery for entertainment and ratings? It’s like the Supreme Court’s famous definition pornography (okay, bad analogy): I know it when I see it.

If Weiner manages to hang on, it may be in part because the media excess whips up a bit of sympathy for the bad-boy congressman.