Around two weeks ago we learned that one our extremely powerful government officials, David Petraeus, engaged in an affair and has resigned from his position as Director of the CIA. Since then we have watched as the scandal unfolded all over the media. Even two weeks later there are still headlines. General Petraeus is even a New York Times “Times Topic” which is a page within the website where user can go to find all stories concerning Petraeus, as well as pictures and a timeline of his life. The woman, a Charlotte, NC native, has been followed by news crews day and night and we have seen much of her life in our own local news. This isn’t the first major political scandal I’ve seen in my life and I’m sure it is far from the last. From my experience with this and other political scandals, it seems as if all other news stops and we need to analyze every last detail of these government officials’ personal lives.
Where did this idea of personal issues becoming newsworthy come from? An article by Howard Tumber and Silvio Waisbord analyzed the relationship between political scandals and media across democracies. They found that although investigative journalism has declined both in the United States and the UK, journalism has entered the world of tabloidization. This drive towards scandalous headlines have increased the public’s interest in these shocking stories and therefore shaped news coverage of political scandals. Not only has there been an increase in scandal coverage but there has been a cultural change where we castigate people, especially public figures, for not acting in a way that society accepts. Tumber and Waisbord say, “media scandal in one instance at least is part of an ultraconservative overall trend in popular culture where people may be castigated for not conforming to family values or the tabloid press blames Hollywood stars for not being faithful in marriage and TV talk show audiences scream disapproval at guests who do not conform to normal lifestyles.”
Why do our media feel the need to do this? One reason is that these stories sell. News outlets do serve as watchdog of the government and informer of citizens, but they are also businesses. Especially with the trends in declining readership, newspapers need to write stories that the public will be interested in. Scandals have a shocking allure. Although many of the details are not needed to know by the public, we want to know them and news outlets will give us what we want to get an audience. In addition, the creation of 24 hour news programs like CNN has given us stations where we can listen to the news all day every day instead of just one hour between regular programming. There is a lot more time to talk about all the details of scandals than there was before. The internet also serves to expand the space and time scandals are discussed.
It is clear from this article that scandals have become prevalent in the news of our society, but why are we so concerned? Why do we feel the need to know the details of the personal lives of our public figures? While I don’t condone extramarital affairs, what do those actions have to do with being the Director of the CIA? In a society where about half of marriages end in divorce, extramarital affairs are not that rare. We don’t make our neighbors quit their jobs if they were unfaithful. Why should we hold public officials to a different standard? Public officials are in their respective position because they are qualified and perform the duties better than others. Why then, should society force someone out of a job where they are benefiting our country because of who they choose to sleep with? There is an argument in the Petraeus scandal particularly, that people who knew of the affair could use this information to blackmail Petraeus. We clearly do not want the Director of the CIA making decisions based on coercion. But in general is ousting public figures on the basis of their personal life good for society? One of the roles of the press is to be a watchdog of the government. Within that role it is important to ensure that the citizens are fairly represented by government and that there is no abuse of power. If a public official is doing an exemplary job but choose to make nontraditional choices in his or her personal life, society pressures this person to resign and we as a country could be losing an important asset. Although I don’t think it is right to castigate our public officials, I don’t see the media lessening its coverage of scandals in the future.