minority reports

The media’s woman blaming

Most coverage wrongly blames Paula Broadwell for leading Gen. David Petraeus astray
November 16, 2012

In her column, Minority Reports, Jennifer Vanasco analyzes how the mainstream media covers social minorities.

Frank Bruni gets it.

The New York Times columnist wrote a smart, sensitive piece this week about the Petraeus mess, calling out all those in media who heaped more blame on Paula Broadwell for the affair than they did on Gen. David Petraeus.

What Bruni — and most feminists — know is that this sort of thing happens repeatedly. Nearly every time a heterosexual sex scandal threatens to tank the career of a powerful man, we hear (and read) the same story: The poor guy couldn’t help it. After all, what can a man do when faced with the irresistible temptation of a nubile younger woman? Certainly he can’t be expected to exhibit self-control.

It doesn’t matter that this reasoning is the same that was used to chastise women who exposed their ankles in the 19th century, or that some argue the logic is used today to keep women in burqas. The narrative of crafty-young-woman-fells-unsuspecting-man is beloved by those in media. We hear it all the time.

What we don’t often hear is a male voice that points out that this is sexist, and who says, “Enough.” But that’s exactly what Bruni did.

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In fact, he calls this kind of coverage “tired,” writing:

And the anecdotes and chatter that implicitly or explicitly wonder at the spidery wiles she must have used to throw the mighty man off his path are laughably ignorant of history, which suggests that mighty men are all too ready to tumble, loins first. Wiles factor less into the equation than proximity . . .. And yet it’s the women in these situations who are often subjected to a more vigorous public shaming – and assigned greater responsibility.

Bruni is right, and there are plenty of examples to back him up. As he points out, one publication — McClatchy.comThe Charlotte Observertells us that Broadwell has 13 percent body fat (also, that she weighs 133 pounds). Business Insider writes that an anonymous source said Broadwell “got her claws into him.” The Washington Post titled its story, “With Paula Broadwell, Gen. David Petraeus let his guard down,” as if she were some conniving vixen instead of a West Point grad with a masters in government from Harvard, and he an innocent lamb, instead of – well, the director of the CIA. (One must assume he’s met a conniver or two before.) The Post goes on to say that Broadwell “flaunted” her access to Petraeus and wore tight, inappropriate attire. (For the record, Buzzfeed’s Jessica Testa does a nice job of correcting these impressions of Broadwell, interviewing her friends for a better understanding of what she’s actually like.)

Bruni wrote his column before Jill Kelley was identified as the woman to whom Broadwell allegedly sent harassing emails, but of course what he wrote applies — perhaps even more so — to her as well. The media widely insinuated that Kelley was having an affair because of a number of emails she exchanged with Gen. John Allen, the commander of the Allied Forces in Afghanistan.

Now it seems that actually, she and her husband were just close friends of the general’s, and many of her emails were to his wife. The emails were flirtatious, perhaps, but nothing more. But before that clarification was made, the media jumped on her, too, painting her as a vapid socialite (held in suspicion by the neighbors, said The New York Times), who hosted many parties that the military attended, and who was the kind of woman (a maligner, no doubt) who called 911 when the press blocked her driveway. Gasp.

As Jezebel points out (careful; the headline and copy are NSFW), through all this, Petraeus has been portrayed as a good guy who screwed up. For example, there’s this quote over at Politico: “He really enjoyed his job at the CIA, it was the best job in the world, as far as he was concerned. He had a good relationship with the president and national security team, and he threw that all away…due to a personal failing.” But why doesn’t the media see Broadwell that way? (Or Kelley? Because — let’s be clear — it looks right now like Kelley has done nothing wrong.)

Well, says Jezebel, it’s because “sex in our culture is [seen as being] always the woman’s fault.” Perhaps our culture does see it that way. But it’s our job in the media to go beyond what people say or see to observe what actually happened. And the truth is, an affair is always the responsibility of both people involved. There is no victim. There is no hero. There is just human fallibility. We know that. And it might not be as sexy, but that’s the story we should write.

Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network’s LGBT news site 365gay.com. She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women’s issues ran for 15 years.