Toxic Technology

During a recent radio talk show segment on media issues, David Perlmutter, a guest on the show, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas and the moderator of this blog, posed this question:

Are attacks and vilifications of public officials on blogs and other forms of new media making would-be politicians reluctant to enter the field?

Arriving at a definitive, fact-based answer to that question seems difficult at best. Would the people who say they were stopped from pursuing political careers by fear of noxious bloggers really have pursued them otherwise?

I suspect most people who go into politics have the chutzpah to stand up to the fear of being slandered. Values, platforms and world views may serve as guidance systems in political careers, but wide, hard competitive streaks fuel the campaigns. Politicians, like soldiers and professional sports figures, are risk takers; the adrenaline rush of pursuit blunts the pain of small injuries.

Poisoned Pens

The part of the talk show I found most interesting was the conversation about why stories of a sexual nature, sometimes introduced by bloggers, are so often reported by the mainstream media, even when they don’t seem, on their face, to be newsworthy.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that bloggers started the practice of reporting allegations – or speculations – about sexual impropriety. Journalists took the lead in that arena a long time ago. Benjamin Harris probably initiated the practice on this continent in 1690 with the publication of Publick Occurrences: Both Forreign and Domestick, a single-issue newspaper that accused the King of France of having an affair with his daughter-in-law.  Post-colonial journalists didn’t balk at the practice, either. Publisher James T. Callender accused Alexander Hamilton and then Thomas Jefferson of sexual misconduct.

Professional responsibility

The practice seemed to fall out of favor as journalism matured. It reappeared in 1987, when presidential candidate Gary Hart’s extramarital affair was exposed.  This time journalists had an excuse: Hart had dared them to find evidence of his misconduct. Since that time, stories about sexual misconduct have become standard fare.

The talk show panelists discussed the Clinton/Lewinsky affair. Journalists had to report that one, they said, because it involved a sitting president and occurred in the White House. Sex stories that speak directly to policy, such as those involving homosexual encounters by politicians who oppose gay rights, must be exposed. The story of Sarah Palin’s daughter’s pregnancy had to be reported, either because bloggers were putting out false information and it fell to journalists to set the record straight, or because Palin supports abstinence training in schools, and the policy justification applied. The public’s interest in “character-driven politics” was also cited.

I’d heard each of these arguments before, of course. I’d even agreed with some of them. After hearing them all in the same conversation, however, they began to sound hollow and self serving. I began to wonder: is it possible that journalists and bloggers alike are seeking out sexually titillating stories because they are forbidden and risky? Does chasing the sex story appeal to some competitive streak? Is an exclusive on a sex story more of an adrenaline rush than, say, writing about yet another breakdown in our financial system?

I also thought about this: does the public put with this streak of sensationalism because it is more fun to read a blog or news story about sex than it is to be reminded that our economy, our planet and our health care and educational systems are in disarray?

Hmm. I wonder how politicians feel about that.

posted by Karen Blakeman

Originally posted September 23, 2008 at PolicyByBlog

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