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American Journalism Review
All Anthony Weiner, All the Time  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2011

All Anthony Weiner, All the Time   

A sex scandal without actual sex and its media dominance. Tues. June 14, 2011

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


The numbers are staggering.

Last week the news media dedicated 17 percent of its newshole to the sad saga of Rep. Anthony Weiner, according to the weekly survey by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

That put it far ahead of two fairly worthy contenders, the U.S. economy and the tumult in the Middle East, both of which weighed in at 11 percent.

The combative Brooklyn Democrat also earned the crown of newsmaker of the week. Weiner, according to PEJ, was mentioned prominently in 13 percent of the stories it studied, while Barack Obama, whose job last time I checked was president of the United States, settled for five percent.

Even a casual news consumer could tell the Weiner story was a monster. But those sheer numbers really bring home its dominance.

It is, of course, a hell of a story. It's got sex (well, sort of). It's got a powerful political figure brought down by his own weirdness and stupidity. It's got the added fillip of the social media angle, the Twitter-savvy congressman done in by a rookie mistake (hitting the wrong key and sending a picture that was intended to go to just one person to the entire Twitterverse). And it's got the congressman's unfortunate last name, which tragically has launched a thousand junior high school-level puns.

It's easy and satisfying to view what is obviously overkill with alarm, to tut-tut and pontificate and warn of the stunning and irredeemable decline both of everybody's favorite whipping boy (person?), the news media, if not Western Civilization.

But let's face it, scandals have been big news since probably the dawn of time. People love to read about them. And ever since a onetime football star called O.J. Simpson was charged with killing his wife, the era of scandal saturation has been with us. And that was in an innocent time with only one cable news channel and no full-on digital revolution.

Today we have three cable news channels. And they live for stories like Weiner and the women, drip-drip soap operas that they can milk for weeks on end. And in a Web world ruled by the frantic quest for eyeballs and search engine optimization, the allure is irresistible.

This is not a media climate where proportionality is king. And that's not likely to change anytime soon, no matter how much we deplore it.

Weiner himself has helped keep the story alive, first by saying he had been hacked (read: lying); then, after more evidence emerged, fessing up in an exceedingly bizarre press conference; then by stubbornly refusing to go away, in spite of merciless hounding by the media and his fellow Democrats.

Speaking of the Democrats, it's no wonder they are frustrated. Just when, after many months in the political wilderness, their assault Rep. Paul Ryan's Medicare measure seemed to give them traction, Weiner's unfortunate tweet totally changed the subject. He couldn't have done more damage to his party if he were a GOP double agent.

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