Al-Qaeda has a new boss. The Obama administration has thrown the country into its fourth military conflict by launching air strikes in Yemen. The markets are tanking on Europe’s debt crisis and U.S. economic woes.
You just might not know it if you are an exclusive consumer of U.S. media. Even the front page of The New York Times website devoted more space to the Thursday resignation of Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner than anything else.
For Democrats – and Barack Obama, who suggested Monday that Mr. Weiner should leave – the resignation offers a chance to direct the media focus away from congressional peccadilloes to serious business.
The newly married Mr. Weiner’s serial sending of lewd photos of his body parts to female fans, via Twitter and e-mail, is a tame addition to the annals of political scandals occupied by Monica Lewinsky and Eliot Spitzer.
But Weinergate was the top story in the U.S. media during the week ending June 12, occupying a staggering 17 per cent of the news hole, according to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. It sucked up one-third of the airtime on cable news.
Mr. Weiner’s resignation, which crowded out almost everything else except the Casey Anthony trial on cable news on Thursday, will keep Weinergate alive for a couple more 24-hour news cycles – at least.
Why exactly? Unlike other recent sex scandals involving elected officials, there is no compelling public interest aspect to Weinergate.
Mr. Spitzer, the former New York governor, built his career by prosecuting prostitution rings, only to be caught up in one himself. Mr. Weiner neither committed nor abetted any crime. Nor is the ultra-liberal 46-year-old politician a hypocrite, unlike some of his disgraced peers who trumpeted “family values” only to be exposed as fakes and philanderers.
But “scandals” like Weinergate come to represent big stakes in a hyper-competitive political system in which each party and player scrambles endlessly for the most minute of electoral advantages.
“It’s political because this is one of the ways in which notions about where American values lie are being leveraged between Republican and Democratic agendas,” said Deirdre Boyle, a professor of media studies at The New School in New York.
Weinergate has been toxic for Democrats trying to persuade the country that the party is focused on creating jobs and blocking Republican attempts to gut cherished social programs such as Medicare. For that reason alone, Mr. Weiner had to go.
Not that his resignation will allow Democrats to change the conversation immediately.
The anticipation was palpable when House of Representatives Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi arrived at her weekly press conference Thursday morning. The top U.S. cable news networks covered it live.
“As usual, we’re here to talk about jobs, about protecting Medicare and protecting the middle class,” Ms. Pelosi told reporters. “If you’re here to ask a question about Congressman Weiner, I won’t be answering any.”
With that, CNN, Fox News and MSNBC cut away from Ms. Pelosi and returned to what mattered: Weinergate. The No. 4 channel, HLN, stuck with the child murder trial of Ms. Anthony it had been covering all along.
Political sext scandals and salacious murder trials are the American media executive’s idea of winning the lottery. To have both Weinergate and the Tot Mom trial at once provide juicy new material is a jackpot moment.
The real scandal may be that Americans, and their media, seem to care so much.