Selling Sleaze: A User’s Guide

Ten ways to rationalize the publication of infidelity rumors.

The Fourth Estate is not interested in petty gossip and unfounded rumors. We report on matters of high policy pertaining to the public interest. Consequently, the rumor of a sexual liaison between a certain presidential candidate and a female intern with the Associated Press wouldn’t ordinarily be the sort of thing we’d stoop to publish or broadcast. Sadly, however, overriding considerations compel us to share this information with the public:

1) It’s a press story. “Welcome to Reliable Sources, where we turn a critical lens on the media. I’m Howard Kurtz. Should the media report unsourced rumors about THAT WOMAN JOHN KERRY’S BEEN BANGING BEHIND TERESA’S BACK? How much coverage of a candidate’s private life is too much? Here to discuss this with us are Tom Rosenstiel and Bob Guccione.”

An imaginative new variation on this approach is to omit the ethics angle entirely and merely speculate about whether the press will report on the rumor, as if it were some other beast entirely from oneself.

2) It’s an Internet phenomenon. The people sharing rumors about John Kerry’s sex life by e-mail and on Weblogs constitute a vital new subculture—a new news medium, if you will, one that doesn’t play by the old rules. This cries out for sociological analysis.

3) It’s a story about bare-knuckled negative campaigning. Dukakis campaign manager John Sasso lost his job in 1988 for secretly distributing to TV news organizations an “attack video” comparing a speech by rival candidate Joe Biden with the speech it was plagiarized from, by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock. Shame on him! But thanks for the fabulous footage …

This time, the role of Sasso is played by Chris Lehane, former press secretary to Wes Clark, and, before that, to John Kerry. But in a new twist, Lehane’s role is an unconfirmed rumor, too! (Lehane gets blamed for everything nasty in the 2004 presidential race.)

4) It’s a story about financial impropriety, maybe. Housing Secretary Henry Cisneros’ affair with Linda Jones became the public’s business because he paid her more than $250,000 while the taxpayers were paying his salary. Apparently the taxpayers didn’t want him spending his salary on a sexy blonde; they wanted him to spend it on a subscription to National Journal. Cisneros resolved this by paying $100,000 to the government. If this can be sold as a financial scandal, anything can.

5)  It’s a story about sexual harassment. See Paula Jones, Monica Lewinsky, et. al. In lieu of actual evidence, it’s sufficient to find the accuser believable. That was Wall Street Journal editorialist Dorothy Rabinowitz’s justification for running with the story of Juanita Broaddrick, who claimed that Bill Clinton raped her. Previously, Rabinowitz had achieved renown by disbelieving stories of sexual impropriety.

6)It’s a story about character. Suzannah Lessard published an essay two decades ago in the Washington Monthly * about presidential candidate Ted Kennedy’s womanizing, and what it might mean about his character. She tactfully left out the evidence. Now we never leave out evidence, or even speculation. If people say nasty things about you, that in itself reveals something about your character—even if they aren’t true!

7) It’s a story about hypocrisy. Every politician praises the institutions of marriage and the family. Ergo, every politician is a hypocrite when rumored to be having an affair. In the future, all politicians will be forced to praise promiscuity and to say that marriage should be banned not only for gays, but for heterosexuals.

8) It’s a story about electability. Anything that’s believed about Kerry, even if it’s untrue, affects his electability. He is not a person. He is the public’s perception of a person. A rumor is a component of that perception.

9) It’s a story about a Democrat, and all Democrats are scum. This justification only works for the conservative press.

10) Lighten up—it’s a humor piece! Never trust anyone who tries to justify himself this way.

Correction, Feb. 19, 2004: An earlier version of this column erroneously stated that the New Republic published Lessard’s article. Although the New Republic commissioned the piece, a dispute arose among its editors about whether the subject was appropriate, and eventually the magazine decided not to publish it. Lessard then passed her article on to the Washington Monthly. (Return to the corrected item.)