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No Sex, Please

Senatorial sexcapades (and rumors thereof) continue to roil impeachment-happy Washington, but the 'Times' refuses to pursue the whole story. Hello, Larry Flynt!

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Some years ago -- Bush was running against Dukakis -- I was hired to help a Washington-based magazine called Campaigns & Elections become a more mainstream publishing business. The magazine was targeted at that roving band of political advisers in either party who lived for the excitement and disarray of a political campaign. (James Carville, at that time without much stature in his profession, spent a lot of time at the office.) It had the perspective of say, Soldier of Fortune, taking a chatty, down-to-earth, what-me-worry approach to a weird subculture -- "political junkies," the magazine's publisher called this group. I advised that it was probably best not to refer to your readers as junkies, and suggested a formal tag line: "the magazine for political professionals." But junkie was a lot more descriptive -- these were obsessional types plying their craft with a whole new set of diabolical, technical, and entrepreneurial skills. They were professionals, but they were nutty professionals.

One instance of nuttiness I particularly remember occurred at a trade show hosted by the magazine, where I dutifully engaged in a conversation with a young man whose specialty was something called "opposition research." That is, he dug for dirt. But it wasn't just the talent to dig out the dirt that he was proud of; dirt, after all, was just dirt. What he was most determined to explain was a theory about the dissemination of dirt. Because the problem with dirt is that the media had imposed virtually an iron blockade when it came to the really personal, gamy stuff. Even the tabloids, which would always play up celebrity sex dirt, wouldn't take political sex dirt, unless it was about Teddy Kennedy. But, he said, excitedly, this was changing; there were incredible new opportunities for opposition research.

"We've got distribution," he said, lowering his voice. He spoke earnestly about talk radio and call-in formats (he knew market-share numbers), about the rise in alternative weeklies, about what was happening in cable and other outlets like computer bulletin boards, and how you could take a story "mainstream" by "pumping it up the channels." Indeed, he painted a picture not so much of a changing political climate but of a changing media business.

Naïvely, I was more interested in his gossip than his distribution plans.

I am, of course, reminded of that young man in his wash-and-wear oxford button-down as the Senate gets ready to open for impeachment business and my friends in politics and media make book on which senators will shortly have their adulteries revealed. As we wait for more shoes to drop (or closets to open, or pants to be caught down), it's clear that my nutty-seeming acquaintance had made a prescient media analysis:

If you're a marginal media outlet trying to call attention to yourself, you print or broadcast news that more mainstream organizations will not (at least not at first). That is how Matt Drudge becomes Matt Drudge. What the analysis did not necessarily anticipate is that the game could be played by all variety of ideological provocateurs.

Indeed, Larry Flynt!

Larry Flynt is not only the most feared man of the hour -- Drudge and Flynt replace Woodward and Bernstein -- but the most interesting. For a moment, he made Bob Livingston come to life.

Still, as a journalist, it is hard to swallow: Larry Flynt!

The Times confronted this issue on Christmas Eve when in an editorial it gave its opinion that Larry Flynt was not in the same profession as, say, Ted Koppel, and worried that "too many readers and viewers believe, wrongly, that Mr. Flynt's sleaze empire is just another brand of the established media." Further on, it urged the "mainstream media" not to abandon "their standards or values."

Part of what the Times was surely saying -- "each media organization must craft its own code, remembering that the most trusted news outfits will be those that try hardest to preserve the traditional journalistic values" -- was that it is uncertain about its own standards for publishing or not publishing what it describes, bitterly, as "the pile of documents, faxes and raw gossip that the nation's mainstream journalists must sort through and check out each day."

From my own experience, I assume that any reporter involved in writing about impeachment who has an accessible e-mail address is getting a pretty constant stream of what the Times calls raw gossip. I don't doubt that the Times reporters get up in the morning and, as I do, look to see whether a favorite rumor has made it into print or on the air. I confess: I run a special robot on the Internet -- a rumor bot -- that alerts me if any of my favorite hearsay is on the move.

Meanwhile, many Washington reporters -- certainly those who deal with Hill staff and lobbyists -- are already quite familiar with the details of a wide variety of congressional personal lives and socializing styles (as it were). Political sex lives are one of the subjects talked about with great verve and novelistic nuance in Washington. Sex, in Washington, is not discreet. On the Senate side especially, where a senator almost never travels alone, every senator has a rep. Quite a detailed rep. No one, certainly, would have to place an ad and pay a million dollars for such information.

Which, obviously, prompts the question: Why is this Larry Flynt's story?

The Times' R.W. Apple, in 35 years never without an opinion as to the fate of the republic, confesses in a front-page story to having no idea what will happen next in this pulpy impeachment tale. He seems to see impeachment unfolding like a Grisham novel -- reversals and double reversals, action and reaction, a series of effective if vulgar plot devices.

Now, a probable reason for his lack of confident prognostications and state of constant surprise is that the Times is not pursuing the story -- the Times is as removed from the driving forces of these events, and hence as shocked by them, as Times readers are. The Times is running the requisite column inches, but it offers no investigations, no reporting about the causes that have led to the effects, no looking behind the curtain, no independently sought and verified information. Instead, the Times has left this story to be written by political assassins and self-promoters of one stripe or another, which is what makes the plot twists so unpredictable -- it's just one side outmaneuvering the other, Grisham-like.

There's no reliable narrator. No impartial information provider. Nobody's honest here.

I use the Times as the Times used Ted Koppel, to mean, of course, all mainstream news organizations with the requisite journalistic traditions: Not one of these organizations (with the possible exception of Newsweek via Drudge) has broken a significant part of this story. That, in itself, is large news. Scooped by the scum. Reputable news outfits report, instead, absolute certitudes that, days later, are replaced by opposite certitudes.

It is part of the true diabolical cleverness of my young interlocutor's media plan: Partisan groups can float stories that the established media cannot -- or will not -- independently report. Once the story surfaces, even as rumor, it becomes part of the larger story. That's because none of this gamy stuff is stuff that reputable reporters will take a second look at: track down, make phone calls about, analyze, develop new sources for.

Why did Bob Livingston resign? There is a story here: What is it? What did he do? Was it so bad? So unpalatable? Or is the right wing so rigid that it would sacrifice its own for the merest peccadillo (or for a mere purported four peccadillos)? A set of facts caused a significant event to occur. Why don't we know those facts? Isn't it somebody's job to lay the story out fairly and objectively?

Obviously, the Times and other news organizations want the genie to go back into the bottle; they believe -- in a way that's really startling, or quaint, given the trends in American life -- that sex lives are not relevant to good government. A complicating issue is that not reporting on a politician's sex life is part of the traditional journalistic values of which the Times editorialist speaks. And then, of course, reporters are adulterers, too -- that's a conflict for you.

But what would happen if the Times did the story? A front-page lead jumping to two solid pages inside the first section? What if it took on sex in politics in the thorough, worthy, and evenhanded fashion that is its raison d'être?

If you follow the trend from Gary Hart to Gennifer Flowers (remembering that Clinton's operatives fought off a big sex attack by threatening to push Bush's adulteries to the surface) to Monica Lewinsky to the late Mr. Livingston, it's clear that we're not going to reach closure in the Senate (although getting out of harm's way of this story is going to be a big motivation for many senators). No, the most is yet to come.

Do we have to learn about it in the streets? Context. Please.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com


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