On Last Week’s Lara Logan “News”

Not much of a scandal, not much of a story

“Isn’t anyone bothered by the Lara Logan sex scandal coverage?” asks Washington City Paper’s Angela Valdez.

I’ll get to what bothers me about it in a minute. Although I can’t claim to speak for any other media critics, I’ll bet that the lack of “bother” can be attributed to a couple of things:

1) There really wasn’t very much “Lara Logan sex scandal coverage” by the mainstream American press (unless I somehow missed the cable news coverage-a-thon?) As far as I can see, the trajectory went something like: National Enquirer, assorted foreign tabloids,New York Post, Huffington Post, Washington Post, and CNN’s “Reliable Sources. So that’s, what, two-and-a-half, maybe three mentions by credible media outlets?

2) Anyone who first learned about the “scandal” from the New York Post story probably had a reaction like I did (and this does not let the Post off the hook, the soft prejudice of low expectations and all that): What, did you expect the Post to pass on the chance to publish the headline “Sexty Minutes” alongside a photo of the, yes, very attractive CBS correspondent, Lara Logan? That combination sells papers and begs clicks at a rate that the same headline accompanied by, say, a photo of Logan’s 60 Minutes colleagues Steve Kroft or Lesley Stahl - should a gossip rag ever publish something “sexty” about them —might not. This, after all, is the paper that also liked its coverage of attractive ex-CNN anchor Paula Zahn’s “steamy sex tryst”—tryst also being the Post’s word of choice in its Logan coverage.

Back to what bothers me. It’s too bad that the Huffington Post just passed along what it deemed “the juiciest” bits of the Enquirer and Post stories (which would seem tailor-made for comment and critique from, say, Rachel Sklar) without comment or critique. On Politico’s media blog, for example, Michael Calderone linked the Post story, but included his own critical framing (he mentions Logan’s promotion last week to CBS’ chief foreign affairs correspondent, notes Logan’s Daily Show criticisms of U.S. press coverage of Iraq, and observes that “the news cycle can deal with only so much talk of the harsh realities in Iraq and why the networks are devoting less and less space to coverage. And so the shifting Logan narrative is evident in today’s NY Post cover story.”)

Much the same treatment— “Lara Logan speaks out, gets promotion, lands in tabloids”—by the Los Angeles Times’s blog (ok, so I guess we’re up to three or four-and-a-half credible media outlets having covered, in some capacity, the “Lara Logan sex scandal.”)

What “bothers” me most among this coverage is what Howard Kurtz did with this in last week’s “Media Notes” column in the Washington Post, and in his CNN talk show, Reliable Sources, last Sunday.

At the end of his multi-topic column last week, Kurtz wrote: “Here’s a story that began in the National Enquirer,” then reprinted the first five paragraphs of the New York Post’s version of the Enquirer story, leaving off with the sentence, “A close pal of Logan, who confirmed the allegations to The [New York] Post, said [Logan’s alleged “tryst” partner’s marriage] was already finished six months before they sparked up a relationship”—to which Kurtz added his two (and only) cents: “which would mean it’s not much of a story.”

A suggestion, from media critic to media critic, for how not to treat a story that you deem “not much of a story”: Don’t reprint most of it for your readers. I mean, can we say that it is still “not much of a story” now that the Washington Post has excerpted—and presented to its own readers—most of that story (with almost no additional criticism or commentary)?

And then there was Kurtz’s treatment of it all on his CNN show. After a news-heavy week for Lara Logan—her blistering press criticism on the Daily Show, her big promotion, a salacious National Enquirer story about her personal life—Kurtz talked only about the last item. This, after having just declared it “not much of a story” in his Washington Post column. Not only that, Kurtz—“the nation’s premier media critic,” you know—asked his guests (in this case, the National Review’s Jonah Goldberg and “author/CNN political contributor” Kelli Goff ) whether the Logan saga was newsworthy, without tackling that question himself. (Zachary Roth has written for CJR about Kurtz’s “buck-passing.”)

The consensus: Not really news! Goff also said: “And I’m completely there with you that I have a hard time believing that this—that after a male correspondent who is risking his life every day in war zones was given a huge promotion, that the lead on the story would be who he is or is not dating….”

Except that Kurtz never said anything at all about Logan’s “huge promotion,” let alone that this should have been the “lead on the story” —either the New York Post’s or his own. And it was Goff, not Kurtz, who thought to ask this: “When did The National Enquirer become a credible source for major news stories in major national publications?”

Kurtz, along with Goldberg, instead rushed to the Enquirer’s defense:

GOLDBERG: The Enquirer has broken a lot of stories.

KURTZ: There have been times when the Enquirer has…

GOFF: But very rarely are they cited as the source.

There was a kernel of something worthwhile that came out of the Reliable Sources segment (again, credit belongs to Kurtz’s guests): the observation that we live in a media environment where networks actively encourage and participate in, as Goldberg said, the “celebrification” of their news reporters; where CNN, for example, plays up Anderson Cooper’s cover-boy status (and, speaking of Paula Zahn, remember that CNN ad that promoted Zahn’s CNN show as “provocative” and “sexy” and included the sound of a zipper unzipping)? An environment where, I’d also add, CBS “puts Katie Couric on a Photoshop diet”, and has her lean against the news desk on her debut night as anchor of The CBS Evening News (shame to hide Those Legs behind a desk).

Not that I’ve (yet) seen CBS actively marketing Lara Logan as their New, Hollywood-Attractive Washington D.C.-Based Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent. Even if other media outlets present her that way.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.