Or, In Defense of Fondling Cardboard Cut-Outs
[digg-reddit-me]Dahlia Lithwick, writing in Slate about the character of John Roberts as he was being vetted for the Supreme Court in 2006:
I knew guys like [John Roberts] in college and at law school; we all knew guys like him. These were the guys who were certain, by age 19, that they couldn’t smoke pot, or date trampy girls, or throw up off the top of the school clock tower because it would impair their confirmation chances. They would have done all these things, but for the possibility of being carved out of the history books for it.
An acquaintance of mine from college has been in the news recently. No – I’m not talking about this profile in Newsweek (which was reddit-famous), this one from The New York Times, or this piece in Time magazine. I’m talking about the headline on The Drudge Report linking to this piece in the Washington Post. I ignored that piece when it first came up, hoping the story would die. It’s certainly not news in any meaningful sense. But it does turn out to be “news” in the sense that matters most these days: It provides a hook for people to fake righteous outrage over.
Jon Favreau, a speechwriter for Barack Obama now slated to move to the White House as chief speechwriter for Obama, had a picture taken of him at a party. I include the picture to keep matters in perspective – for without it, an observer would probably imagine something quite shocking.
(The Wikipedia entry’s description of the photo, Favreau “performing a suggestive gesture to a cardboard cut-out of Hillary Clinton.” With that description, I would have pictured something else entirely!)
The offending picture was posted on Facebook by a friend of Favreau’s for some two hours before it was taken down. Now it’s in the Washington Post and the New York Times and analysts on CNN are making profound noises about it. According to The New Agenda, a supposedly feminist group, Favreau should be fired. Campbell Brown of CNN, the individual whose brilliant first name inevitably leads her to disappoint viewers expecting profundity (“Free Sarah Palin!”) decided her counterintuitive response would be to attack Senator Clinton’s lack of outrage over the degradation of womankind that this photo represents:
Really, Sen. Clinton? Boy, have you changed your tune. You really think this photo is OK?
Put another woman in that photo, just an average woman who supported you during the campaign. Have it be her image being degraded by a colleague of hers. Would you be OK with that?
Yes – Campbell Brown is outraged over Hillary Clinton’s shrugging-off of an unfortunate photo while the economy is melting down and two wars are raging. Clearly, Hillary’s priorities are out of order – not Brown’s. Walter Cronkite must be ashamed to call himself a newsman these days.
There is a sensibility that infects mainstream coverage of any material that is tawdry and cheap – a kind of Hayes Code for today’s newsroom that makes every sexual scandal or embarrassing photograph into a morality tale. Without that cover, it’s hard to justify the right to show scandalous photographs repeatedly and talk in graphic details about the sex lives of politicians. (Remember the New York Post‘s scolding headline about the Miley Cyrus photograph, the scandalous photograph that they then enlarged on their front page to scold her about?) The goal of these morality tales is to pull readers or viewers in with titillating details while simultaneously and self-righteously denouncing the behavior.
What’s worse though than the faux-outrage and real outrage over such petty scandals is the type of public servant it encourages. We can’t all live as Dahlia Lithwick imagines John Roberts has. To view a scandal with good humor is one thing – to view it with the knowledge that we are all human, are all imperfect, all make mistakes – with the knowledge that if a perfect inquisitor came to judge us by our own standards, each of us would be found wanting. None of us are pure – and often those most obsessed with purity turn out to have their own demons. (See Haggard, Ted.) Our current political and media environment penalizes anyone who has lived and left any evidence to show for it. And we wonder how we’ve gotten in so much trouble.
At the same time, the self-appointed inquisitors have often been found wanting themselves. From preachers to journalists to politicians to news anchors to judges to each one of us – all of us, having lived, have done things we regret. Whether our regrets are dragged into the light of day and made into a media spectacle is largely a matter of happenstance. If you live in the public eye, then having the media pore over the worst moments of your life is a risk you take.
But we don’t really want to limit our politicians and public servants to those who have never done anything to have offended anyone in their lives.
Thankfully, Barack Obama has not taken this approach. If he wanted to avoid scandal and hypocritical tsk-tsk-ing, he would not have named Hillary Clinton Secretary of State with her long history. Lawrence Summers, as necessary as his brilliance may be to saving our economy, would have been eliminated because of controversial remarks he made some years ago. Eric Holder, despite his almost spotless record, would have been eliminated for that one spot – his minor role in the Marc Rich pardon. Joe Biden’s runaway mouth has led him to offend many constituencies.
Barack Obama campaigned saying he would change Washington and politics as usual. It seems his first order of business is to ignore the hypocrites of the media (and media-parasites like The New Agenda). With Hillary Clinton downplaying the incident and Obama having a history of ignoring this type of media scandal, I hope and trust that Jon Favreau’s job is safe.
But that’s not the point. It should never have been called into question over an incident like this. If the media wants to report on some lewd scandal, they can at least do their audience the favor of avoiding the hypocritical moral posturing and just revel in the tawdriness of it. It would at least be honest.
By the way, The New Agenda managed to insinuate that my college inculcated “less-than-respectful attitudes toward women”:
Ironically, other famous alumni of Jon Favreau’s alma mater, the College of the Holy Cross, are Clarence Thomas and Chris Matthews, also noted for their less-than-respectful attitudes toward women.
Apparently, the writer of this piece for The New Agenda never quite understood the meaning of the word “ironically.” That’s what a second-rate education will get you – a lack of knowledge of basic English vocabulary and a deficient sense of humor.
To complain about The New Agenda’s misuse of the word, “ironically,” you can email:
Or preferably, email each address to make sure someone gets it.
(It’s harder to get in touch with Campbell Brown – but you can comment to CNN here.)