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Monkey Business and Moral Panic

American journalists aren't shy about reporting on sex and politics. Unfortunately, they're covering precisely the wrong stories.
 
 
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The year was 1873, the beginning of the American Gilded Age. The nation was exhausted by the Civil War. Robber barons were stealing public lands, importing cheap workers from abroad to build (and die on) the railroads, committing bank and securities fraud, and hiring thugs to beat up the newly organizing labor unions. The nation's economic structure was shifting from a very rough equality to an hourglass, with most of the wealth up top and most of the people on the bottom.

In response to all this economic dislocation and misery, at least one reformer knew exactly how to restore America's moral greatness. At Anthony Comstock's urgings, Congress made it a federal crime to send "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" material (i.e., pamphlets about contraception or sexually transmitted disease, condoms, "French" playing cards) through the U.S. mail.

Comstockery is alive and well in today's United States. When citizens distract themselves from economic disruption by focusing not on common matters of public policy but on personal matters of sexual purity, social historians call it a "moral panic" -- and, from the Starr report, which almost cost us a president, to the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, the U.S. has had a runaway panic on its hands for at least a decade. Unfortunately, American journalism is making it worse -- in part by covering precisely the wrong stories about sex and politics.

Since Senator Gary Hart's infamous monkey business in the 1980s, there have been plenty of discussions about where the serious media should draw the line on coverage of public officials' sexual behavior. When is a scandal merely voyeurism, and when is it an invitation for investigative journalism? In theory, most of us agree: on the one hand, the media should never cover consensual and private adult behavior, even when it might seem unsavory. On the other, the media should always cover coercive or criminal behavior, especially when it abuses public power or reveals official hypocrisy. But in practice, for the last decade, the American media have been getting it backward.

Consider the appalling fact that only The Nation has given real coverage to serious allegations against Dr. David Hager, President Bush's controversial appointee to the Food and Drug Administration's Advisory Committee for Reproductive Health Drugs. According to the reporter Ayelish McGarvey, in October 2004 Hager took the pulpit at Kentucky's Asbury College chapel and told churchgoers that he had been persecuted for standing up on "moral and ethical issues in this country," persecution that was part of "a war being waged against Christians, particularly evangelical Christians."

Here's what he meant: many people had opposed his appointment as the panel's chairman because he had worked with Concerned Women for America to block distribution of RU-486, the "morning after" birth control pill. While Hager did not become chairman, he was appointed to the committee, where, he boasted from the same pulpit, he had been influential in blocking over-the-counter distribution of RU-486. In May 2005, The Nation published McGarvey's article, in which Hager's ex-wife, Linda Carruth Davis, alleged that, during the years that he had been crusading to restrict women's medical choices, he had been raping her repeatedly, anally and painfully, often while she was drugged into sleep by prescriptions for a neurological problem. When McGarvey contacted him, Hager would not deny the allegations.

No other media outlet ran with this story. Yet anyone -- especially any public official -- who cannot respect another human being's bodily integrity can and must be called to account. Such acts matter still more when there's an intellectual link between the public figure's attitudes and behaviors and the public policies he promotes. That's precisely the case for Hager, who -- if the allegations are true -- publicly worked to deny women the right to make choices in their medical lives, while privately denying his wife choices about her physical life.

Were the allegations true? Ex-spouses say terrible things, and she wasn't under oath, both of which any editor must consider. But fact by fact, McGarvey constructs a careful story, not a casual he-said/she-said shocker. According to her lawyer and longtime friends, Davis's charges were consistent with what she'd told them at the time, as was her explanation that the reason she didn't go to court was that she had wanted to spare her sons the humiliation of a public airing. Very few women report marital rape, which, as McGarvey notes, is notoriously difficult to prosecute.

Anger added, "You can't run a newspaper to win Pulitzers," which effectively ended the discussion. Thus began my two-year odyssey on the advisory board.

And yet no media outlets followed up or demanded an explanation.

Now consider another case in which American journalism got things wrong, but in the opposite direction: the Ryan v. Ryan divorce filings. As Jack Ryan, a Republican senatorial candidate in Illinois, was sinking in the polls in his 2004 race against Barack Obama, the Chicago Tribune and the local ABC news affiliate WLS-TV succeeded in persuading a judge to release his divorce papers.

According to those filings, his wife, the actress Jeri Ryan, had wanted to get free of him in part because she found it repulsive when he repeatedly urged her to accompany him to a sex club and do the deed in front of others. Arguing, as Jeri Ryan did, that you want to divorce your spouse because your ideas of sexual intimacy are distressingly incompatible is entirely fair. But why should a citizen care? That story was domestic voyeurism, not political information.

You could argue that this story falls under the hypocrisy exemption, and that's generally how it was covered. Jack Ryan marked himself as a "family values" politician, promising to vote for some of today's biggest Comstockeries, like the Federal Marriage Amendment and restrictive "pro-marriage" policies. But this kind of journalism backfires, endorsing an essentially prurient vision in which personal sexual probity is a surpassingly relevant qualification for office. That's Comstockery all over, building up hysteria over individual sexual desires as a distraction from serious issues. Far more significant were the links between Ryan's Goldman Sachs millions and, say, his desire to cut taxes for his income bracket.

Finally, here's one recent story in which the media got things exactly right: the one about James West, the mayor of Spokane, Washington. West was accused of going online and soliciting sex from young men, sometimes in exchange for various office perks (like internships, baseball tickets, or autographed footballs). In some cases, he had offered these young men jobs and then harassed them for sexual favors. During his political career, West had vigorously opposed gay-rights measures. And yet, when the Spokane Spokesman-Review started publishing the results of its investigation into the solicitation and harassment charges, West had the gall to declare he was being persecuted for being gay. Please. Given that combination of criminal allegations and political hypocrisy, West deserved what he got.

So we know that the media can get this right. But perhaps we haven't quite understood the consequences for getting things wrong. It's about more than just the dumbing-down of the media; it's also about shrinking the space available for serious public conversation. Yes, sex sells papers -- but it can also sell out the nation. Not covering the right story (the Hager story or the West story) leaves scoundrels in public office. And covering the wrong stories shifts American attention away from the real meal of our shared public concerns and onto the mental junk food of private sex lives.

A century ago, groups like the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, the Boston Watch & Ward Society, and various temperance societies were shutting down contraceptive clinics, urging police to round up prostitutes and gay men, and smashing saloons. They were right that something in the nation was morally amiss -- but wrong about what that was. Today's groups -- like the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, and the Concerned Women for America -- depend on journalists to help keep the public breathing heavily about illicit sex, so that they can gin up misleading moral panic. Too often the media go along. Anthony Comstock would be proud.

E.J. Graff is resident scholar at Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center and a senior correspondent at The American Prospect.