Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Weiner and Watergate

The endless coverage of Congressman Anthony Wiener "uncovered" says more about American prurience and American journalism than it does about the actual harm Wiener has done.

It's a strange coincidence: while this "scandal" plays out in the media and in the halls of our Government, the infamous Pentagon Papers, the history-shaking documents about the Viet Nam disaster leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971, have just been declassified.  An unlikely connection between these two events has occurred to me.

When a conservative blogger got hold of some compromising photos, which Anthony Weiner allegedly took of his own undressed body and Tweeted to a number of females who are not his wife, a firestorm began.  Confronted with the as-yet unidentifiable evidence, Weiner compounded his immature mistake by at first lying about it, and then admitting the truth of it later in a humiliating press conference.  As irresponsible as I thought Andrew Breitbart's leak of the photos was, Weiner's fumbling dishonesty, to me, did the most damage. 

Soon, politicians from both parties reacted with self-righteous indignation, temporarily absolving themselves of their responsibility to work together on the economy and other issues pressing on a desperate American public. They provided a hungry press with all of the sound-bites and sanctimonious statements it needed to get a "story".  And then, these politicians boldly claimed that Weiner himself was the distraction.

Weiner must have been out of his mind to think he was invincible enough in his position to  continue on this path and get away with it.  To my mind, based on what I've read, his was an action of stupidity that was hurtful to his family.  He betrayed the trust of his constituents by not owning up to this mistake and explaining and apologizing at the outset, but it was not irrevocably damaging to his skillful ability to champion for his constituents' concerns. 

And yet, the media has insisted that this is big news.  Why?

Because Weiner exposed his body.  And because there is a public attitude that the human anatomy is naughty, shameful, taboo, and automatically salacious.

Again, I believe Weiner acted stupidly and badly misused social media. And yes, as Mr. Obama reasoned in an NBC interview yesterday, Weiner's photos are evidence that Weiner, a public servant, was himself distracted and not concentrating on the hard work he was elected to do.  For that reason alone, this should have been an internal matter, one between himself and his superiors, where he would have to account for himself, and have the hard conversation about his ability to serve. 

The real story here is his personal problem, of initiating or encouraging questionable social and sexual relationships, and the terrible repercussions that would have for his family and his professional life.  THAT would justify his retirement from politics. 

But it should never have become a big headline for three weeks, with government statements and appearances, just so the media could find more reasons to air pictures of Weiner's body.

It is we, the public, who are mostly to blame, for buying this stuff.  If the public could stop treating the human body as something taboo;  if we can stop turning the sight of a person's body (especially in private between consenting adults) into a scandal; if folks could get over their pre-adolescent sniggling over human anatomy; then items like this would become non-stories.

And the press would be forced to do its more important work...


In 1969, former Marine commander and high-level Pentagon official Daniel Ellsberg got hold of a 7,000-page document titled, "United States-Viet Nam Relations, 1945-1967: A Study Prepared By the Department of Defense."

Also known as "The Pentagon Papers."

Proof that several U.S. Presidents knew that Viet Nam was a quagmire; evidence that the U. S. Government systematically lied to the American public.  After immediately sending a photocopy to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, his conscience told him in 1971 to leak the entire document to 18 newspapers, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, which began to publish them.

This was Wiki Leaks without the Wiki.  This was a big, big deal then.

Another firestorm ensued, over press freedoms, over Presidential power, over truth.  Ellsberg turned himself in and was charged with treason.  To cast aspersions on Ellsberg's reliability, to show that he was "crazy", president Richard Nixon sent a team of henchmen to break into the room of Ellsberg's psychiatrist at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., in order to steal documents to prove Ellsberg's incompetence.

This incident, along with allegations of illegal wiretapping, was doggedly pursued by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, which ultimately led to the publication of "All the President's Men", and began the disgrace and downfall of Richard Nixon, and his resignation from office in 1974.

Ellsberg was finally aquitted of all 12 felony counts on the grounds of government misconduct against him. 

(Read here for a riveting recent CNN interview with Ellsberg as he speaks about the recent declassification)

Since the Pentagon papers and the Watergate affair, American journalism enjoyed unprecedented freedoms and a global presence unimaginable in 1971.  The New York Times won a legal appeal against the Attorney General's order to cease publication of the Papers:
On June 18, 1971, the Washington Post began publishing its own series of articles based upon the Pentagon Papers;[3] Ellsberg gave portions to editor Ben Bradlee. That day, Assistant U.S. Attorney General William Rehnquist asked the paper to cease publication. After it refused, Rehnquist unsuccessfully sought an injunction at a U.S. district court. The government appealed that decision, and on June 26 the Supreme Court agreed to hear it jointly with the New York Times case.[17] Fifteen other newspapers received copies of the study and began publishing it.[3]
On June 30, 1971, the Supreme Court decided, 6–3, that the government failed to meet the heavy burden of proof required for prior restraint injunction. The nine justices wrote nine opinions disagreeing on significant, substantive matters.

"Only a free and unrestrained press can effectively expose deception in government. And paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell."
—Justice Black[18]   (From Wikipedia)
So now, how is the press and media using this freedom? Where are the crusading Woodwards and Bernsteins? Who is going after those who destroyed our economy, pursuing and exposing the truth with such fervor as to topple the powerful?  Who is revealing the real issues behind our current activity in Afghanistan and now Libya, the unbridled use of drones, the circumvention of Constitutional Power, the lining of Contractor's pockets? Who will find sources to tell us who is donating millions to the campaigns of politicians who base their political careers on the exploitation of the helpless and the pandering to the hateful and ignorant? 

Now the press spins the whistleblowers into the culprits.  Now the leak of a few pathetic photographs is big news.  Compared to the impact of the Pentagon papers--- No.  There is no comparison.  Only a sad connection.

Yes, there are much more important ways the press can serve the public.  I want to see the return of journalists as responsible investigators and attack-dogs.  Are those days over?
How will another look at Anthony Weiner's bare chest benefit anyone?


  1. Great piece! I can not believe that American politics still are plagued with such double standards when it comes to evaluating performance. If Weiner was good, then let him be as promiscuous as he wants (during his free time of course), government shouldn't be attached to morality clauses, there's a reason why State and Church are usually separated.

  2. Jose,
    Glad to have your comments as part of this post. I often am amazed at the double-standards too.

    I have added you to my blog-roll!

  3. Great post and I totally agree. But I think it's a shame that the dems hung Weiner out to dry like this too by not sticking up for him. The repubs do it every time when one of their own gets caught. Weiner did NOTHING illegal. I don't think he should have resigned but your right Tom the media acted like his judge and jury. He didn't stand a chance.