Cause For Pause on Weinergate (UPDATED)

Jack Shafer on the sensational congressman

Slate’s Jack Shafer had a thoughtful column up on Friday regarding last week’s Weinergate shenanigans. In it, Shafer makes a counterintuitive argument—at least for a media critic—that the mainstream media should not be torturing itself about whether or not it should be covering the Weiner Tweets, but whether or not it is giving the “scandal” enough coverage. In the age of Gawker and The Daily Show, the question of what makes news is settled—and it’s not what the New York Times decides. Scandal is here to stay, and coverage of the sensational is a necessary guard against irrelevance—the now perennial example of National Inquirer/John Edwards is cited.

Concluding after his fine rumination on the inexorable move of sensationalism into the mainstream, Shafer writes:

If Eugene Meyer were alive to view Irina Shayk wearing a string bikini on the cover of Sports Illustrated or read a story about Lady Gaga in his Washington Post, he’d probably have the common sense to rewrite his principles to read, “In matters that lend themselves to sensationalism, worry less about ‘too much’ coverage than ‘not enough.’”

The point here is that in the media, the once “outrĂ©” often can become very much the standard. And quickly. Shafer delves a little into the history of attitudes towards sensationalism for his piece, outlining the slippery ethical game some newspapers once played, in a pre-Internet age, where—for fear a large advertiser might get all red-faced and pull ad pages at the sight of any inches given to a too-sordid scandal—reporters dug for the most salacious details and wrote them up in the most coded, banal ways. Eugene Meyer gets name-checked because his set of ethical codes, once published on the front page of The Washington Post, are cited as particularly irrelevant to today’s reporting world.

Considering two of the principles—“As a disseminator of news, the paper shall observe the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman” and “What it prints shall be fit reading for the young as well as the old”—Shafer writes:

As fusty as the principles may sound today, I can remember them being quoted in earnest over the phone by a Washington Post managing editor in the early 1990s (Hi, Bob!) who was answering my questions about Post coverage. I’m sure that “the decencies that are obligatory upon a private gentleman” was easily interpreted in the 1930s. What it means today, I have no idea. A private gentleman does not ask impertinent questions. He does not compile dossiers on other citizens. He rarely attempts to find evidence that would get a senator or CEO thrown in jail. Post gentlemen and gentlewomen do this daily.


The second of the two principles—read in any decade, past or future—sounds paternalistic and patronizing because it is. But you can see the appeal. By promising to keep the Post and its readers out of the gutter, the Meyer principles short-leash those reporters and editors who might want to explore the territories where squalor and turpitude thrive. In practice, the Post and every other “quality” daily in the country evade Meyerian principles by writing in code when reporting stories about adultery, degeneracy, iniquity, vice, and the other human mainstays. If you know the code, you’re exposed to the filth and the fury.

Those two principals are easy targets—largely because of their very “paternalistic” and “fusty” wording—and Shafer does a nice job picking them apart. But when it comes to examining modern ethics, and to the case in hand, I don’t know that Shafer is as convincing. He writes:

Prestigious newspapers can and still do ignore these stories, but they do so at the risk of becoming irrelevant to their readers. Cable news was once slave to the editorial agenda of the top newspapers, most notably the New York Times and the Washington Post. Today, the big dailies must follow not just the cable news but cable comedians like Stewart and Colbert, plus hundreds of websites, lest they appear less-well-informed about the seedy and the repugnant aspects of our culture than their readers.

The question of whether the mainstream press should chase stories like Weinergate may be a hot topic of debate at the Shorenstein Center and the Poynter Institute, but it’s really been a settled issue for some time. A newspaper can’t stay relevant by ignoring what its readers know and are interested in, and newspapers desperately need to be more relevant.

It’s true that to a large extent, the big dailies are now followers rather than leaders, and grappling with that change—witness former Washington Post ombudsman Andrew Alexander’s mea culpa after his paper ignored the James O’Keefe/ACORN story back in late 2009. But that doesn’t mean they should abandon principles in order to run hamster-like on the news cycle, wherever the web and cable lead them. It’s not from the web and cable that we should necessarily be taking our ethical cues.

And the principle in question with the Weiner case is not the easy-to-rip-apart drawing room sentiments of Meyer—that we should avoid dirty talk, getting down into the gutter, or sensationalism in and of itself. Reporting on the Ensign affair was a no-brainer, for example. The principal here is how much space to devote to a story that has been shrouded in dubiousness since day one. The facts remain foggy, murky, muddy, etc. Ethical questions around covering “Weinergate” concern reportorial slipperiness and personal motivations more than sensation.

The ethical and practical considerations—whether to cover it at all, how much coverage to give it, and what kind of coverage that will be—are legitimate topics of debate from Poynter to Nieman to CJR to any news desk. The usual questions come up around this. By covering what appears to be a manufactured scandal, dailies—which still have more respect than most other media and thus far more power to legitimize a story than most web outlets, cable, or Comedy Central—can extend the lifespan of a dubious story and reinforce its legitimacy by mere virtue of a headline. By not covering, they risk missing the story. Thus they need to think seriously and judiciously about the weighting of their coverage. In the new media age that Shafer speaks of, when stories do spread rapidly across a range of platforms, ungoverned or steered by fusty old ethical considerations, this is ever more important.

Which is not to say that Shafer’s wrong to argue that papers should cover Weiner. They should. And (proportional) resources should be assigned to getting to the truth of the case, or the untruth. The degree of sensation should be irrelevant, too—cotton briefs or full monty, it’s our job to take a peek. But we should at the very least take a thoughtful look and think long and hard (sorry, but had to) about what we are looking for and how we’re going to present what we find. That’s an ethical pause in reporting that no amount of technological or methodological change in our profession should erase.

Update: There will be more questions to consider after today. Andrew Breitbart has published new pictures of Weiner on his websites, which Weiner allegedly sent to a young woman from an e-mail account the congressman is said to have used as a kind of alias. The nature of the pictures—which feature the congressman topless, with his face in full view, along with what appears to be pictures of his family and of Weiner with Bill Clinton—mean this story is not going anyway too soon. As the story develops, we’re continuing to see how newspapers and networks are followers on this story, as Shafer said. The Times reports that ABC News has now interviewed the woman who supplied Breitbart with the pictures. The network is apparently still deciding when to air the interview. Breitbart is promising we will know who the woman is by tomorrow.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.