In reading Twitter and blogs the last few week, I’ve realized that there are what I believe to be several misunderstandings about the politics and media coverage of the Anthony Weiner story, and how media drove the politics, and not the other way around.
It Didn’t Happen Because Anthony Weiner is a Democrat The best comparisons aren’t Weiner and any number of Republicans caught up in sex scandals, like David Vitter or John Ensign. The better comparisons are what happened with Charlie Rangel, Democrat William Jefferson and Republican Bob Ney.
Rangel, Jefferson and Ney were all accused of abuse of office with financial improprieties. At the height of their scandals, Jefferson and Ney weren’t the big media stories that Rangel was, for two simple and connected reasons: Rangel was a regular on cable news while Jefferson and Ney weren’t, and Rangel is from New York City, while the others weren’t.
The national media is based in New York City, and the national media is narcissistic; they think whatever happens in New York is bigger national news than things that happen elsewhere. Think about mayoral coverage; there’s always more national reporting about Michael Bloomberg, or before him Rudy Guiliani or David Dinkins or Ed Koch, than any other mayor in America. Heck, most Americans have probably never even heard of, say, Antonio Villaraigosa, Annise Parker or Michael Nutter.
Anthony Weiner is from New York City. That was the biggest factor in making this a big story.
Democrats, By Calling on Weiner to Resign, Did Not Drive This Story To think that this became a bigger story because Democrats told Weiner to resign is to avoid reality. Democrats could talk about jobs all they wanted, but as long as Weiner’s story was still alive, the media would respond as they did today, when Nancy Pelosi wouldn’t talk about Weiner because she wanted to talk about jobs: the TV networks turned off the cameras and went back to talking about Weiner.
This Wasn’t Simple Prudish Moralizing Weiner was stupid and reckless for sending the photos, I think everyone can agree on that. And no, it’s not like hiring a prostitute and prancing around in a diaper, like Vitter did. But sending unsolicited photos of your groin to women you don’t know isn’t a case of two adults engaging in a consensual activity. The issue wasn’t that he was married, and the substantive problem wasn’t that he did it on Twitter (although that novelty fed in to the coverage). The problem was that a guy who has a decent degree of prominence by being a member of Congress was sending around photos of his crotch to women who hadn’t asked to see it.
This Got Worse With Support From Anthony Weiner He may not have sent anything problematic to a 17 year old woman. But when you’re explaining that you didn’t send anything salacious to a 17 year old, and that you didn’t even realize she was 17, you’re in a PR disaster. And not having a press staff leads to debacles like the press conference where Breitbart took over.
Weiner Is Not Without Significant Political Blame Weiner may be a bit of a victim here—it’s still murky how to me how Breitbart got the photos, and I’m definitely unhappy that sex scandals arouse the press so much when there are much bigger issues to report—but he also inflicted some serious damage on Democrats. There were opportunities costs such as him being the story on the day that special-election winner Kathy Hochul was swore in to office. He has also dominated press coverage at a time when Democratic hits on the Ryan Medicare plan started to draw Republican blood. But there’s also the serious price to be paid for validating Andrew Breitbart. Instead of being only a fabricator, the press will now say Breitbart can at least sometimes be credible; after all, he was right about Anthony Weiner.
Weiner Resigning Isn’t a Big Loss for Progressives As Juan Cole lays out, regarding the Middle East Weiner has been a borderline neocon. He isn’t a player in crafting legislation or shaping an agenda. And while such ratings have methodological shortcomings, I’m sure many of Weiner’s liberal champions would be surprised to learn that in 2008 the National Journal ranked him only the 123rd most liberal member of Congress, only one spot more liberal than then-majority leader Steny Hoyer. None of this means it’s OK for the press to obsess about a guy’s groin, but it would be nice if people stopped playing the victim and saying Weiner got bounced from Congress because he’s too progressive, because that’s not what happened, and because he’s not particularly progressive compared to other Democrats.
[Update: let's not forget he was also the only Democrat actively trying to end funding for the U.S Institute of Peace.]
The Problem With Lying to Nancy Pelosi Wasn’t That He Disrespected Her Pelosi didn’t call on him to resign because her feeling were hurt when he lied to her by saying, after the story initially broke, that his accounts had been hacked and that he hadn’t done anything problematic. She dumped him because when it came time for damage control, his lies made it too difficult for his caucus to help him out. Without knowing whether he was still lying, defending him risked major problems for Democrats in the event worse details eventually surfaced.
It’s not a good thing that Anthony Weiner resigned. But the harm isn’t what many progressives believe it is. The problem isn’t that a supposed progressive voice has been silenced, or that Democrats eat their own. It’s that in the age of cable news personalities, back-benchers with poor impulse control and no inclination to work with their colleagues can overwhelm all other political news, hurt Democrats, embolden the right to attack more Democrats and liberals, make politicians look like cads, and divide those who should want Democrats to succeed in serving the needs of the country.