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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Weinergate: Sexting, lies and the mediascape

photo of Anthony Weiner

photo by boss tweed/Creative Commons

As is often the case with media feeding frenzies, it took Jon Stewart to bring into sharp relief the U.S. news media’s conflicted role in the Anthony Weiner scandal. On the day that the New York congressman finally resigned after he lied about, and then admitted to, sending sexual pictures of himself to young women via the Internet, the cable news networks waited breathlessly for a regularly scheduled news conference by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. It was the usual hurry-up-and-wait scene, with shots of the empty pressroom, reporters milling about and doing live hits for their anchor desks. There was analysis from pundits and other news of the day to fill the time as the Washington beltway media, and apparently the entire nation, waited agog for Pelosi to take the lectern on the day Weiner was resigning from Congress.

When she stepped up, Pelosi began, “As usual we’re here to talk about jobs, about protecting Medicare, protecting the middle class. If you’re here to ask a question about Congressman Weiner, I won’t be answering any.” She went on to elaborate her pitch that Republicans had failed to focus on jobs in the 163 days since they’d taken control of the House of Representatives. All three of the major cable news networks, CNN, Fox and MSNBC, swiftly cut away before she had uttered a complete thought. Stewart cogently parodied the whole breathless spectacle, particularly the most ironic justification offered by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, who seemed painfully unaware of his misplaced solemnity. “We’ve covered these kinds of stories,” he intoned to anchor Susanne Malveaux not long after Pelosi’s news conference. “It’s not something we look forward to. I’d much rather be discussing economic issues, jobs, the future of Medicare, national security issues, than talking about this.”  Of course, that was what Pelosi had been trying to discuss. As Stewart retorted, “What’s stopping you?”

What indeed? Now that it’s all said and done, let’s take a closer look at the Weiner matter. What was it about this particular tale of personal disgrace that, as The Guardian’s Nicolaus Mills noted, did not actually “rank very high on the American sex scandal parade?” A number of elements together pushed this into “gate” territory, the moniker that signals top-tier scandal and guarantees viral sharing online, trending on Twitter and wall-to-wall coverage on cable news.

Of course there’s the entertainment-profit complex that governs news production more than ever before. This is evidenced not least in the chequebook journalism, where ABC paid $15,000 for photos and an interview with a woman who’d had contact with Weiner. But a key ingredient in this perfect media storm was the pictures themselves. Not just any pictures, mind you. Photos of exposed skin and bulging underpants!

A picture is worth….

This story was visual, in spades, unlike others. We know that pictures drive television more than any other medium; hence the longstanding practice of paying for pictures and interviews, spun by the networks as “licencing fees.” It was the sexual equivalent of the hackneyed TV news adage “if it bleeds, it leads.” Weiner’s lying, the bizarre psychology of a successful man who would inevitably get caught, the possibility that he used public resources for his narcissistic publicity, the whole notion of privacy, were key elements of the story. They are “water cooler” or “hey Martha” questions in the news business—discussion that regular people would be having with friends and colleagues. But the existence of pictures, not to mention the inevitable string of double entendres about the Congressman’s name (Stewart’s segment was titled The Schlong Goodbye), gave us Weinergate. From a broader social perspective the story was driven by what might be called a prurient puritanism in the social psyche, and by the public-private disconnect that visits many people in their online lives and possesses them/us to (over)share.

During the week of June 6-12, 2011, when Weiner fessed up to his lies in a desperate attempt to get ahead of the women coming forward, the scandal constituted 17 per cent of the entire U.S. newshole, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. graph of news coverage of Weiner scandalIt was number one ahead of the economy by six percentage points, and the PEJ’s news coverage index said cable news networks devoted about one third of their airtime to the story that week. Cable news was followed in the distance by radio airtime at 21 percent, while newspaper coverage was down at seven percent of the newshole. It was the fourth-most-covered political scandal since the PEJ began its tracking in 2007, with former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich’s attempt to sell Pres. Barack Obama’s former senate seat topping that list.

This isn’t to say that all the networks, or online and print media were fixated only on opportunities to put up the now-familiar photos of Weiner’s erect penis in his grey boxer briefs, or his bare chest against the unfortunate background of his family photos. And certainly the hourly-update nature of radio made it prominent in a non-visual medium. The congressman’s lying, signalled by his increasingly circular and hot-headed answers to questions were red meat for reporters. He was a very poor liar. But in the midst of his prevarication the visuals elevated the story above others in the annals of U.S. political sex scandals.

And there’s plenty of competition; one needs an archivist or at least a tote board to keep track. Rachel Maddow of MSNBC obliged with her political scandal “consequence-o-meter” which humorously graphed the “creepy” and “prosecutable” actions of a dozen politicians in the post-Clinton era. They vary from marital infidelity to paying prostitutes for sex, to gay cruising by homophobic lawmakers, all with an array of potential abuses of power involved. Maddow’s bit was funny if a tad overwrought, as with much of the Anthony Weiner imbroglio itself.

Neither the abuse of power angle nor the misuse of resources angle in this case ‘had legs.’ Still, news media routines and practices worked hand-in-glove with the graphic photos to keep the pot boiling. While the possibility that he used government resources did not develop, the lack of support from Democratic leaders fed the political side of the story. Weiner never endeared himself to those leaders, nor to his other congressional colleagues. He’s known for lone wolf tactics and more than the occasional rant. Republicans link arms when sex scandals happen on their side of the aisle: to wit Louisiana Senator David Vitter who is embraced by his party colleagues despite revelations that he was a regular with a prominent Washington, D.C., prostitution service. At most, Republican politicians tell us they’re “praying” for their colleague. In Weiner’s case, the photos plus the collapse of his political support fuelled the story for a media already conditioned to fixate on elite sources. Certainly the views of government leaders do matter in a congressional scandal. But there was no groundswell of Weiner’s constituents demanding that he quit.

The reasons the story became Weinergate go even deeper. The news media are not, after all, sitting outside our celebritized, hyper-mediated society dutifully taking notes. They are marinating in it like the rest of us. Social media fuel the story, and fuel our curiosity about how people’s aspiration for attention, affirmation, publicity and celebrity increasingly seems to trump their/our desire for personal privacy. The exhibitionist element may not be new but the social media/sexting aspect of Weinergate is 21st century. It’s even more lurid somehow than having one’s phone number found in a D.C. Madame’s electronic Rolodex, as with Vitter.

Weiner used social networking sites as a means of sharing his photos and for self-aggrandizing promotion of his physical assets. When he did so he shared via the private messaging function, but he ultimately was caught by accidentally tweeting the bulging crotch shot to all his followers. For reporters, his use of social media was an alluring and cogent angle from which to explore the congressman’s delusion that his behaviour would remain private.


The pundits chime in

Media punditry included the explainers of such irrational behaviour, and also the defenders of the tired boys-will-be-boys school of thought, including those opining about why men think such decontextualized photos are erotic. There were the power intoxicates stories, the discussion over whether Weiner met the definition of a sex addict. There were opinions about where one crosses the line into marital infidelity with sexting and other cyber-relationships. This was all-important fodder for online media sites. A more complex discussion of the systemic modern norms of masculinity that men grow up in was largely absent. Yes the story is about power, but of a kind that is so ubiquitous as to be largely invisible. It’s about a man wanting to dominate and be worshipped by women, and about the media culture that fosters such a notion of masculinity.

Rather, the Weiner coverage stuck closer to the easy and more lurid questions, all made relevant with the ubiquity of online/social media platforms. And the media never strayed far from the horse-race element, that staple of daily news and the bread and butter of cable. Will he or won’t he resign? Will he resign and run again? Will his wife leave him? Is he worse than politician X, Y or Z? What are foes and friends saying on these topics? It’s the way the 24-hour news cycle goes round and round.

And yet, what kind of story is this, when there has been no clear direct abuse of office found? No ‘use of government resources’ angle has so far developed. No potential influence peddling or money changing hands. There’s been no outright fabrication about something that is of national concern like, say, hospital “death panels.” No conflict of interest, save for his own private conflict with his wife, which is not a public matter. Clearly it’s not just about the lying. It turns out that happens regularly in politics. What can this scandal, in the context of the parade of political sex scandals, tell us on a broader level?

American media culture is a place where powerful puritan morals sit next to an obsession with sex, sexuality and the body. Who in Western countries outside of the U.S., after all, can fully comprehend a government regulator imposing a $550,000 fine on CBS over Janet Jackson’s supposed Superbowl “wardrobe malfunction” in 2004 wherein part of her breast was exposed for a split second? The same people, I suspect, who get that while a little nipple is an abhorrence to the morals of our children, the most egregiously violent video games are protected by the First Amendment. That very question was recently on the mind of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer in his dissenting opinion of a 7-2 high court ruling on violent video games.

This unfortunate paradox is not unrelated to the news media coverage of Anthony Weiner. Sex and body, and bodily transgression, are an obsession and a taboo, and they are bound up with violence and hypermasculinity. It’s an unfathomable double bind, really. The news/entertainment media both produce and reflect that zeitgeist, as Wolf Blitzer’s comment demonstrates. The media were utterly unable to turn their gaze away from the pictures to focus on what they considered the ‘real news.’ And they struggled to contextualize the story in terms of a broader public interest relating to sexuality and masculinity. One thing I know “with certitude” is that this won’t be the last story of its kind. Whether or not we’re public figures, our increasing desire to document and share our private lives will continue to spill out into the arena of new media. If anything, the online environment and its role in redrawing the boundaries between public and private provides a perfect opportunity for journalists to ask wider questions about how ideas about gender and sexuality (and race, ethnicity, class, ability etc.) are reflected and made manifest in digital life.


photo of journalist Kate Bell

Katherine M. Bell is a former career journalist with The Canadian Press news agency and a PhD Candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. Her research focuses on the ways in which celebrity produces and reflects contemporary notions of social/political engagement in news and popular culture. She teaches courses in media representation and critical media literacy.




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