Despite complaints by Newt supporters, media is consistent in treatment of politicians’ sex lives

January 30, 2012

Over the weekend, Gannett columnist Michael Reagan (the adopted child of former president Ronald Reagan) decried the double standard that compelled the news media to publicize Newt Gingrich’s past sexual peccadilloes after it ignored the affair that John Edwards was having as a candidate for president in 2008 while his wife was under treatment for cancer. In both cases, the media knew about the affairs while the gentlemen were running for office.

Reagan pulls out all the standard right-wing nonsense about “the liberal media” and “their traditional double standard, which always seems to come into play when the target is a member of the GOP.” But a close look reveals that Reagan’s claim of a liberal bias is absolutely untrue.

In making a shoddy case for an incorrect notion, Reagan employs the rhetorical device most associated with his father’s brand of deceptive messaging: the argument by anecdote. Comparing two anecdotes only—Gingrich and Edwards—gives Reagan the opportunity to identify a random characteristic—political party—as proof of a mainstream media conspiracy.

As we have learned from Daniel Kahneman’s recent Thinking, Fast and Slow, one oddity of human thinking is to favor the information learned in a single story (anecdote) over hard statistics. Additionally, people tend to judge on the facts at hand. Reagan gives us two facts only and then spins a lie from the comparison.

If, however, we take a look at which political candidates have had their sex lives dragged through the media mud and which haven’t, we will see a common sense consistency that the news media has applied since World War II to virtually all candidates for national and other office.

Among the candidates and elected officials whose extracurricular hugging and kissing were ignored were presidents Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Bush I and probably Reagan; one recent candidate to have her past (and possibly current) sexual wildness swept under the table was Sarah Palin.

Here are some of the politicians who have seen their sex life become an issue, with the reasons why:

  • Newt Gingrich, who accused a sitting president of adultery while carrying on his own affair.
  • Larry Craig (who didn’t run for president), who was caught trolling for men in a public restroom after advocating anti-gay policies.
  • Gary Hart, who openly dared the news media to catch him with his mistress.
  • Herman Cain, who committed the illegal act of sexual harassment against multiple victims.
  • Anthony Weiner (also not a presidential candidate), who was the first to have his sexual adventuring outed on a smart phone, which created a news story regardless of the actual circumstances.
  • Bill Clinton, who had a run-of-the-mill private affair with a consenting adult.

We now have 13 anecdotes (6 Dems and 7 Reps), and we already see a pattern that suggests that if there is a bias, it’s against a Democrat or the Democrats.

In 11 of the cases, the news media ignored the sexual improprieties of the candidate or elected officials unless the candidate made hypocritical statements, as in the case of Hart, Gingrich and Craig, or broke the law, as Herman Cain apparently did.

The only two exceptions to this rule are both Democrats, Anthony Weiner and Bill Clinton. In Weiner’s case, it’s understandable, as the novelty of smart phone hook-ups and sexting overwhelmed any ethical concerns. I do not mean that journalists behaved unethically by reporting about Weiner’s wiener, but that the newsworthy value of the “first-ever politician caught sexting” story negated whatever pretence of privacy that Weiner deserved. 

That leaves us with the unexplained example of Bill Clinton, whose consensual affairs were publicized while he was running for office and while he served as president. For one thing, he is the only sitting president whose sexual indiscretions were not guarded closely by the mainstream media. Secondly, the decision to publicize these affairs entirely contradicts the established media standard of only going after hypocrites and law-breakers.

I don’t mean to dredge again through this disgraceful incident in American political history, which saw a sitting president impeached for telling one white lie about a private matter a few years before another sitting president got off scot-free for lying multiple times to the American public to gain support for an unnecessary war that funneled billions to his cronies; that second president also broke multiple laws regarding torture and due process. Michael Reagan brought the topic up by claiming that the media shows its liberal bias in its choice of sexual scandals to publicize. I’m merely pointing out that Reagan’s assertion is a lie specifically about the issue of publicizing sexual improprieties and that this lie supports a broader lie about the political leanings of the mainstream media.

The media is not now, nor has it ever been liberal-leaning, although for a brief period of time it supported civil rights and opposed the second most disastrous war in American history. Moreover, the media has been completely consistent in its treatment of the sex lives of politicians, except in the one case of Bill Clinton.

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