The mighty fall and the media cash in

26 Mar 2008

By The Record

Why are newspapers gasping in scandalised horror over the misdeeds of Eliot Spitzer? They wrote the script.


By Carolyn Moynihan
The world news in the New Zealand Herald yesterday was dominated by a large photo with a bold caption identifying the subject as “The woman who brought down a governor”. Last week the average Herald reader knew as much about New York Governor Eliot Spitzer as New Yorkers knew about our antipodean newspaper: nothing, nix, nada. Now we, like the rest of world, know that Mr Spitzer has resigned from his top-ranking position and we also know in considerable detail why: he has joined the ranks of American politicians who have fallen from grace through sexual misconduct – and being discovered.
This is a sex scandal – right? A man has disgraced himself by having recourse to a prostitute, which is a crime where he comes from, and paying her and her bosses tens of thousands of dollars in ways that were also possibly criminal. He has betrayed and humiliated his wife and three teenage daughters.
Having presented himself as a crusader against corruption and a man of moral rectitude he has shown himself a hypocrite and undermined, further, public confidence in government.
He has ruined his own life. So what’s with the big picture of callgirl Ashley Dupre – the woman Spitzer had his most recent, incriminating encounter with – in bikini and provocative pose, starring on the front page of section two? Titillation, that’s what; shameless and hypocritical use by the media of the individuals in this tragedy to increase ratings and sales. And this by the world’s premier newspapers, whose motto seems to be, “We are all tabloids now.” Take the New York Times. On Day One it is all shock and dismay that a liberal hero has fallen. By Day Two they are running a detailed reconstruction of his last assignation with the prostitute. Day Three brings a profile of Mrs Silda Spitzer after a frantic ring around her friends to collect the gossip on her relationship with her husband.
Ironically, there is also an opinion piece by the estranged wife of James McGreevey, the gay former governor of New Jersey, which ends by urging respect for Mrs Spitzer’s privacy – of all things. Day Four it’s a profile of Ms Dupre herself, “star of the seamy drama that is the downfall of Gov Eliot Spitzer of New York”, as the Times puts it. They should know; they are co-writing the script. Who needs all this stuff?
The public only needs to know what affects the public interest: the criminal charges, if any, and in due course the court findings. Judicious commentary can be helpful in putting such events into perspective. More than that comes of the devil. If the media were doing their jobs well, ordinary reporting would bring to light questionable behaviour before it escalated into a major scandal. Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberley Strassel says the press gave Mr Spitzer an easy ride during his campaign against corporate “big guys” while he played the bully himself.
“The former New York attorney general never believed normal rules applied to him,” she says, “and his view was validated time and again by an adoring press.” Mr Spitzer concurred with the view that forced prostitution is a modern form of slavery. Last year he signed a law creating new criminal penalties for that and other kinds of forced labour.
At the same time he increased the penalty under New York’s existing law against patronising a prostitute.
Like him, the press comes down on forced sex and other kinds of human trafficking like a ton of bricks, because it is politically correct to do so. The buying and selling of sex on a consensual basis, however, finds them ambivalent.
All the newspapers run ads for “escort” agencies and “adult entertainment”. The Economist a couple of years ago argued brazenly that prostitution was merely part of the market and people should be left free to trade in sex if they wanted to. And what is the greater part of mass media entertainment — from Sex In The City to Seventeen and even Barbie magazine – but commercial exploitation of the sensuality that brought Mr Spitzer tumbling down and daily drags society deeper into the mire?
So let’s have no more gasps of horror and crocodile tears from the media establishment over fallen idols. Let the papers of record and the investigative journalists clean up their own act. Instead of filling pages with the lurid details of personal sins and social crimes, let them get on with their real job of subjecting everyone to fair scrutiny and reporting what will prevent abuses of power and betrayals of faith.
Ordinary people do not want to wade through acres of smut and gossip to get to some useful news and uplifting entertainment. They are trying to build up their families and societies, and if the denizens of Times Square and Fleet Street don’t want to help them, they deserve to go out of business.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet. She writes from Auckland, New Zealand.