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June 09, 2011 4:30 PM Politicians aren’t (or shouldn’t be) assignment editors

By Steve Benen

Three major sex scandals have been the subject of discussion this week, at least in some corners, as political observers consider the partisan double standards. One involves a Democrat, two involve Republicans.

The Dem, of course, is Anthony Weiner of New York, who had explicit communications with women he met online. He didn’t break any laws and didn’t commit adultery, but many high-profile Dems have called for his resignation and Democratic leaders have called for an ethics investigation.

The Republicans are David Vitter and John Ensign. Vitter hired prostitutes and Ensign slept with his best friend’s wife, who happened to be his employee, and proceeded to break all kinds of laws as part of the cover-up. GOP officials neither asked for their resignations, nor called for probes.

The media loves the Weiner story, but largely ignored the Vitter and Ensign stories. NBC News’ First Read is aware of the talk about a double standard, and tackled the subject this morning.

[L]iberals and progressives have asked this question: Why is there a political drumbeat for embattled Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner to resign when that didn’t exist for scandal-plagued Republicans like Sens. John Ensign and David Vitter? But there’s a simple reason for the difference. With Weiner, the entire Republican Party has leaned its shoulder into putting the Democratic Party in a box. RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has gone on “TODAY” to demand Weiner’s resignation, while a top aide to House Minority Leader Eric Cantor has tweeted the latest developments in the story.

By contrast, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee issued press releases for a week when the Ensign news first broke. But after that, Democrats let go. You didn’t see then-DNC Tim Kaine (who as a Senate candidate has now called for Weiner’s resignation) go on “TODAY” to demand Ensign’s ouster. And you didn’t see other Democrats do the same thing with Vitter. Republicans are much more disciplined at the drumbeat than Democrats have proven to be.

It’s gracious of First Read to respond to the questions — most outlets haven’t even bothered to acknowledge the discrepancy — but this explanation just doesn’t work.

First, Dems “issued press releases for a week when the Ensign news first broke,” but eventually stopped because news outlets ignored them. In theory, the DNC could send out a second week of press releases that read, “Tap, tap, is this thing on?” but in time, Dems realized political reporters didn’t care. The same was true of Vitter. The media just wouldn’t bite, at least not in the feeding-frenzy-style of coverage that often accompanies sex scandals.

With Weiner, on the other hand, Republicans sent out a week of press releases, and the media couldn’t get enough. Major outlets pounced and wouldn’t let go.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, First Read’s argument is based on a dubious premise: Republicans made the Weiner controversy a bigger story through press releases, interview comments, and tweets. But this reflects a fundamentally flawed approach to journalism — judging the significance of a story based on press releases and tweets is silly.

Media professionals should evaluate a news story on its merits. Prominent politicians or party officials shouldn’t have to say a word to anyone for reporters to see the facts of a controversy and decide whether (and to what extent) to pursue it. Politicians aren’t assignment editors, and it’s a mistake to pretend otherwise.

“Republicans are much more disciplined at the drumbeat than Democrats have proven to be”? That’s probably true. But the next question is, so what? Why should media professionals care which stories politicians and party officials tell them to care about?

Why would partisan message discipline have any bearing at all in what professional news outlets decide to cover?

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.

Comments

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  • Holmes on June 09, 2011 4:36 PM:

    'We report(whatever we're told to), you decide.'

  • T2 on June 09, 2011 4:38 PM:

    call me stupid....but I think both Ensign and Vitter BROKE THE LAW.
    Weiner didn't.
    And as for the Republicans being disciplined......First Read is mistaking brainwashed for disciplined. I mean, heck, the SS was disciplined too...

  • Peter C on June 09, 2011 4:39 PM:

    "Why would partisan message discipline have any bearing at all in what professional news outlets decide to cover?"

    because the partisans own the news outlets.

  • Lifelong Dem on June 09, 2011 4:39 PM:

    First Read lacks the balls to admit the truth: "We get our marching orders from the GOP. Deal with it."

  • Peter B on June 09, 2011 4:42 PM:

    1) PICTURES!

    2) NEW MEDIA!

  • Al Swearengen on June 09, 2011 4:42 PM:

    Maybe if Weiner had worn a diaper like Vittert, the media would have left him alone.

    But seriously, part of it is because Democrats don't fight back, or even pretend they have a backbone, so they're easy prey. Just like firing Sherrod within hours of Breitbart's lies, Democrats formed into a circular firing squad around Weiner within hours. Instead of keeping their goddamn mouths shut, they joined into the frenzy.

  • Lisa on June 09, 2011 4:43 PM:

    Your mistake was right here:

    ..."professional news outlets"...

    There have been no sightings of any such creatures in years.

  • Ron Byers on June 09, 2011 4:43 PM:

    In a world where Drudge routinely creates stories that the Mainstream media runs with and in a world where a certain half term governor creates a media frenzy by not publishing her itinerary, you write this post?

    Steve, the job of every political leader is to make the news. If a party gives up pushing a story, the party shouldn't complain when the MSM walks away. The Democrats have never learned how to gin up a story, and America suffers as a result.

    At this point the willingness of Democrats to throw Weiner under the bus is what is carrying the story. If they shut up the story would go away. Anthony Weiner is done as a rising star in the Democratic party, but the party is weakened by the fools calling for his resignation.

    My own view is that fasination with Weiner's story has to do with the phrase "Weiner's wiener." It is a pretty small story, but with pictures it can fascinate newscasters until the next young blond young girl is kidnapped.

  • Old Uncle Dave on June 09, 2011 4:44 PM:

    The next time some right winger whines about the "liberal media" I may have to beat some sense into him.

  • AndrewBW on June 09, 2011 4:46 PM:

    There's one other reason why this particular story got traction: Anthony Weiner's unfortunate last name. It was the perfect excuse the news media to make out all sorts of lame, adolescent jokes. Yes, it's absurd I know, but I think it's true - if his name had been Smith or Jones I don't think this story would have gone nearly so far.

    Of course the fact that he spent a week lying about it when everyone knew he was lying about it didn't help either.

  • Mitch on June 09, 2011 4:46 PM:

    Media professionals are, for the most part, mindless drones who do not think about a story beyond "How will this affect ratings?"

    There are precious few real journalists, and even fewer in the world of mainstream news.

    We can blame it on the bias of major corporations, who naturally tend to side with the Right.

    But I place equal blame on the Left, for refusing to be vocal. And when we are, we tend to be diplomatic to the extreme.

    The Right talks about us like were are the Spawn of Satan, with hysteria aplenty. We tend to speak like reasonable, mature adults.

    The Right screams, "The Democrat [lol] party is destroying America with their Marxist, sharia-loving radicalism!!!!! The Democrat party is a bunch of homosexual-loving cheaters like Bill Clinton!!!! No respect for American values!!!! Socialism!!!! Europe!!!! Blaaaaahhhh!!!!!!"

    Whereas we tend to speak like professors and always give the Right the benefit of the doubt, in the best of diplomatic tradition.

    The media does not care about the Truth, in any way shape or form. Period. All they care about is selling ad space.

  • LL on June 09, 2011 4:52 PM:

    reason for double-standard? Pictures, pictures, pictures.

    That's it. and the New Media angle. But the big thing is the pictures. No pics of Vitter. No pics of Ensign. We are a visual species. Wiener made the fatal error of sending out pictures.

  • ManOutOfTime on June 09, 2011 4:57 PM:

    @AndrewBW - Good call on the Weiner-wiener association.

    I would just add that, contradictory as it seems, maybe part of the problem is that Vitter and Ensign were accused of potentially criminal offenses, whereas Weiner was just being an idiot? So corporate editors might shy away from "taking sides" or making a "rush to judgment" in those cases, whereas Weinergate, in addition to coming TV-screen-ready - no photos of Witter or Ensign being nasty - is headed for a resignation and/or a slap on the wrist. But, ultimately, IOKIYAR and MDBRTW (Matt Drudge & Breitbart Rule Their World).

  • T2 on June 09, 2011 4:58 PM:

    you are right AndrewBW, having photos of you weenie on the internet when your name is Weiner made it pretty hard to resist the story.

    From what I've read, Weiner was not very well liked among his peers, not at all. It seems that Weiner was something of a dick. You can't expect much support when lots of people think you are getting your just desserts.

  • captain obvious on June 09, 2011 5:01 PM:

    think you're missing the other angle...

    Both Ensign and Vitter are professed family-values Christians, who merely succumbed to pleasures of the flesh and diaper-related kink... while Weiner is a lefty pinko commie fag parading his wanker on the internets.
    See? No real comparison at all.

  • slappy magoo on June 09, 2011 5:05 PM:

    Right wing bias in the supposedly liberal media is part of it. Pictures didn't help. The name makes it "funny." It all adds up, there's no one answer.

    I'd add one other element to the mix, and it's a drum I beat a hell of a lot, so sorry for being redundant (or, in the words of my father, sorry for being redundant).

    Republicans have a long infamous history of suppressing the vote, both in blatant ways like voter caging, demanding ID, shutting down organizations that try to produce registration drives in areas where people are more likely to vote for Democrats like ACORN, etc.

    They also suppress the vote in a myriad of more subtle ways. Putting the voting booths in areas that make it harder for "the wrong people" to vote, inadequate numbers of voting booths. And the old tried and true method of making the average American think that they shouldn't bother voting, usually by making you think you can't trust ANY politician? They don't care if you don't trust Republicans AS LONG AS YOU DON'T TRUST DEMOCRATS EITHER. So they've got to make a big enough stink when a Democrat is caught doing wrong, even if that wrong isn't necessarily illegal, to even the playing field, and make the less-informed voter think about staying home on Election Day. Because Republicans NEVER stay home on Election Day. They think of elections the way small towns in Texas thnk of high school football, losing is NOT an option, there's no such thing as a good try if it doesn't result in a trophy, and a dirty win is still a win. So stay home Election Day. They won't. And that's how they win.

    I'd also add one other theory - Wiener was trying to get Justice Thomas to recuse himself from any case involving the Constitutionality of the ACA that makes its way tot he Supreme Court, being that he stands to profit from repeal considering his wife is lobbying on behalf of anti-insurance reform agents. This attack on Wiener is meant to be a warning to anyone else who might think to take up this cause, you could be next. Something else precious few people are talking about, and Wiener's scandal puts Thomas' scandal off the map entirely.

  • king buzzo on June 09, 2011 5:12 PM:

    You're being a bit obtuse here Steve. As other commenters have suggested the pictures are the key difference. Vitter and Ensign would have suffered the same media frenzy had any salacious images been associated with their misdeeds.

  • pete on June 09, 2011 5:16 PM:

    The most interesting aspect of Steve's post is that "professional" journalists are taking their reporting marching orders from one political party. Used to be the Republican drumbeat was the "liberal media." Then, certainly throughout the Bush years, especially with the media justifications for invading Iraq, liberals started whispering that the reality is really that corporate owners of the media had more influence on editorial content and pushed news stories to the right.

    Now, in a great little real life social experiment, we have the media response to two Republican members of Congress and the media response to a Democratic member of Congress. And it turns out that the main stream media coverage is strongly predictable based on the political party of the guilty party.

  • doubtful on June 09, 2011 5:31 PM:

    From what I've read, Weiner was not very well liked among his peers, not at all.

    Of course his peers hate him; he reminds them of what it should mean to be a Democrat. They're comfortable as a do-nothing party fading into obscurity on the right side of center and he's the pea under their mattresses of mediocrity. It's why corporate, sell-out, in-name-only Democrats are shouting as loud as any Republican to get rid of him.

    They were happy to see Grayson go, and they'll be just as happy to see Weiner gone.

  • T2 on June 09, 2011 5:44 PM:

    "what it should mean to be a Democrat" - geez doubtful, I'm a Democrat and I don't even have a Facebook or Twitter....much less show pictures of my privates on the net and then lie about it. It's a sad day if being a Democrat is means being a wife cheating liar. And look at it from whatever angle, and that's what Weiner is. Whether he still represents his constituents is up to them, I guess.

  • zeitgeist on June 09, 2011 5:51 PM:

    Why would partisan message discipline have any bearing at all in what professional news outlets decide to cover?

    In a perfect world, this question would make sense. But not in the real world - now or ever. And because we live in an imperfect world, the very question gives the clueless Democrats far too easy of an out, an excuse to not improve their messaging.

    Anyone here who has not yet read Lakoff's "Don't Think of an Elephant" needs to do so. He does a great job of tracing how patient, dedicated work over a 40 year period honed Republican messaging to a science. The read Toobin's "The Nine" to see how that directly resulted in our having Justice Alito.

    Complaining that message discipline shouldn't matter is a sure-fire way to continue losing when it counts in a world where message discipline inescapably does matter. There is just no excuse for how poorly Democrats play the "game" of politics.

    (and doubtful, while I don't dispute your angle on this, it doesn't help Weiner that by most accounts Huma is exceedingly well liked among the party. there is a human victim in this and that appears to be making a difference; Weiner is not just an abstraction at our disposal as lefties - part of this is that the D.C. lefties are siding with Huma. expect that to get worse given the pregnancy news.)

  • Jon on June 09, 2011 6:00 PM:

    The modern press is too pathetic now to even make up a credible excuse for itself. Almost as pathetic as listening to a conservative defend his economic policy.

    Worse yet, regardless of the merits of Ensign vs Weiner, this excuse doesn't even pretend that the press are motivated by anything other than following the current vibe, whatever and wherever. They seem entirely comfortable in their role of pandering to the crankiest interest groups. That is their role, and they are, amazingly, proud of it. What a "profession." Not the oldest, but not much different.

  • rk on June 09, 2011 6:07 PM:

    Is it NBC's contention that the DNC and RNC chairs have standing invitations to appear on the Today Show and discuss the topics of their choosing? My impression was that these individuals were booked for these shows.

    NBC knows what Reince Prieibus will say when they book him on to the show. They book Reince Preibus on the show because they want to have a guest discuss the "Weiner Scandal" in inflammatory terms. They don't have Tim Kaine on to discuss the Ensign or Vitter crimes because they don't want to have airtime devoted to those issues.

  • jjm on June 09, 2011 6:30 PM:

    Well, I for one do NOT want Weiner to resign. He's shot himself in the foot with this, and crippled his campaign to get Clarence Thomas to recuse himself from any ACA decisions. But he should not succumb to hypocritical republicans looking to empty the seat of an articulate Democrat.

  • beejeez on June 09, 2011 6:34 PM:

    Oh, dear, however will we replace an articulate Democrat?

  • Rick Massimo on June 09, 2011 6:39 PM:

    It wasn't just (relative) silence from Democrats regarding Vitter and Ensign; it was GOP omerta. Like any good crime family, they know you close the ranks and don't say nothin'. After a while the media knows not to bother asking.

  • dms on June 09, 2011 7:23 PM:

    Oh, I know the answer Alex. Pick me, pick me.

    Because the press isn't professtional.

  • ephy on June 09, 2011 7:42 PM:

    T2 - I think doubtful's comment was in regards to political stances and work...you know, the stuff these people are elected to do. Weiner made a bad judgement call, but didn't use campaign funds or break any laws.

    I wouldn't care that Vitter hired a prostitute or that Ensign slept with his staff if the media wasn't so biased on which sex scandals to cover. People in power have always cheated on their spouses, it's only recently that the US media have decided this means you can't be trusted to think correctly about anything. FDR, Lincoln, Kennedy, etc would not have survived their first terms in today's climate.

    I think the three prongs to this stool are GOP-leaning media, Weiner's last name, and the photos. If we could have plastered photos of Vitter in a diaper he would likely have been forced to resign as well (sigh).

  • d.lake on June 09, 2011 10:49 PM:

    Somewhere I read that many republicans are fully aware of the media doing their bidding and playing double standard, they whine about the liberal media for political purpose like sports in playing the refs.
    They make sure to put fear into the press with loud and sustained complaining about them being liberal because they know the media will do anything to show they are not.
    So, the press ignores the republicans scandals while hyper reporting and obsessing on democratic ones.

  • RinMass on June 10, 2011 8:28 AM:

    Let's not ignore the simplest difference - the Weiner story has pictures - pictures racy enough to tell skeevy story, but safe for TV. A made-for-TV scandal beats all. It's the bright, shiny object of the week.

  • SaintZak on June 10, 2011 8:58 AM:

    If there had been pictures of Vitter in his diaper with a prostitute then, rest assured, it would have been a HUGE story. If there were pictures of Ensign or his mistress that would have been a HUGE story, too.

    There are naked pictures of Weiner. It doesn't matter if his "scandal" really isn't a scandal at all...there's a photo of his boner. That's the story.

  • toowearyforoutrage on June 10, 2011 9:13 AM:

    Republicans are much more disciplined at the drumbeat than Democrats have proven to beĒ

    I hear that's how Sunday morning political talk shows choose their guests too.

  • Redundant on June 10, 2011 10:44 AM:

    The Dem, of course, is Anthony Weiner of New York, who had explicit communications with women he met online. He didnít break any laws and didnít commit adultery, but many high-profile Dems have called for his resignation and Democratic leaders have called for an ethics investigation.

    Sexting 17-year old girls = crime

    Seriously, why are you holding water for this pervert?

  • LoveHate on June 10, 2011 12:03 PM:

    "First Readís argument is based on a dubious premise: Republicans made the Weiner controversy a bigger story through press releases, interview comments, and tweets. But this reflects a fundamentally flawed approach to journalism ó judging the significance of a story based on press releases and tweets is silly."

    I would be curious to here NBC's response to this.

  • Steve on June 13, 2011 1:04 PM:

    The major difference: the name Weiner.

    I mean, come on, this is a headline writer's dream and a late night comedian's manna from heaven.

    If the Representative's name was Schwartz (or Schwartzenegger?) it would've been over before it even started.

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