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Smearing Christine O'Donnell: Ugly Gawker Story Turns Her Into a Victim

3 years ago
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Given the media obsession with a certain beyond-the-fringe GOP Senate candidate from Delaware, it is easy to imagine an Election Night banner headline like this: "CHRISTINE O'DONNELL DEFEATED." Then in smaller type: "Concession Speech Sets Ratings Record." And finally in tiny type: "Republicans make sweeping gains in House and Senate."
By now, even yak herders in the remote Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan probably know what O'Donnell was allegedly doing on Halloween three years ago. Gawker (which makes the New York Post seem like the Economist) is running a repugnant story by an anonymous 20-something from Philadelphia claiming that he almost had sex with a drunken O'Donnell. As corroborating evidence, Gawker only offers fully clothed pictures of a festive-looking O'Donnell in a ladybug costume.
Instead of linking directly to the Gawker story, I am urging (probably in vain) that the uninitiated limit themselves to my bowdlerized summary. Trust me, after reading it, you will feel as queasy, as if you ate (cue the Alka Seltzer ad) an entire double-cheese pepperoni pizza yourself. The editor of Gawker, Remy Stern, says unapologetically that the online gossip sheet practiced checkbook journalism to get the story. Gawker, we can assume, was not paying for the writer's urinal-wall prose style.
What Gawker has achieved is something that I never thought possible: It made me feel sorry for Christine O'Donnell.
She has willingly turned herself into a media plaything – from her anti-masturbation posturing on an MTV video during the 1990s to her ill-advised decision to recite a TV ad script that began, "I am not a witch." But even in this exhibitionist media culture, there have to be limits on have-you-no-shame exposés.
No one deserves to have their most embarrassing intimate moments exposed like this. (Remember: We have no evidence beyond the word of Gawker's editor that the story is true in all its details). Christine O'Donnell forfeited certain rights to privacy when she declared for the Senate – her tangled finances are fair game as are her most loony-tunes public statements. But that does not mean that every on-the-town evening a candidate prefers to forget has to be remembered by Gawker.
Almost always a dubious claim of political hypocrisy is invoked to justify these gutter-snipe revelations. In Christine O'Donnell's case, it is that – gotcha! – she advocates abstinence before marriage. But she also is an unmarried woman who is entitled to do whatever she chooses when she is not losing political races in Delaware. Few in public life are so saintly as not to succumb occasionally to weakness of the will. This is an election year, after all, when married Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, who patronized prostitutes Eliot Spitzer-style, boasts a nearly insurmountable lead in the polls.
More than two decades ago, I rode with the lynch mob that strung up presidential contender Gary Hart for taking an overnight trip to Bimini on a boat called "Monkey Business" with a woman who was not his wife. Looking back on that 1987 cover story that I wrote for Time magazine, I wonder if that was not a watershed period when we began demanding unattainable standards of private behavior from public officials. This, by the way, is not to excuse Bill Clinton's exploitation of a star-struck Monica Lewinsky let alone John Edwards' slithery repudiation of his own love child.
It is as futile to call for a return of gatekeepers to journalism as it is to fantasize about a full-employment economy. The days of "All the News That's Fit to Print" (a slogan, by the way, that never applied to tabloids) have gone the way of scruffy newspaper boys shouting, "Extra!" on city streets and reporters with a bottle of cheap whiskey in their desk drawer. This is a world where clicks are the coin of the realm – and Gawker's page views hit 500,000 per hour after it published the purchased recollections of a Philadelphia lout. Trying to uphold standards of taste and fairness in this online environment might seem akin to King Canute ordering the tides to recede.
I might have ended with this old-media bleat of despair had I not just returned from covering Nikki Haley's gubernatorial race in South Carolina. The daughter of Sikh immigrants from the Punjab, Haley is (as near as I can tell) the only married woman candidate for major office ever to transcend two separate public accusations of adultery. On her way to winning the GOP nomination in June, Haley also had to endure the ugly slurs including a Republican state senator who called her "a rag-head."
She could still conceivably lose to Democrat Vince Sheheen. But, if Haley does, it will probably be because of Sheheen's attack ads about her financial record (late taxes and IRS fines) and the business community's discomfort with electing an ultra-conservative protégé of Mark Sanford. Instead of sexual innuendo and ethnic attacks, the final days of the South Carolina campaign are pivoting around (yawn) the state's budget crisis.
After Haley delivered a lunch-time speech Wednesday to a small Republican crowd at Brown's BBQ in Kingstree, I asked her about the disappearance of most personal assaults on her family background and, by implication, her marriage. "After we won the primary," she said, "they heard the power of people's voices." As Haley told it, "The cooks in the kitchen, the parking-meter attendants and the small business owners" all said in unison: "The negativity has to stop. She is someone who would make us proud in South Carolina. We are not what you think we are. We are well-educated people."
So let this jaded reporter end with what may be a naive hope. Maybe Americans eventually recoil from a steady diet of sex and circus in politics. Maybe after gawking at the freak show provided by the bottom-feeders of the online media, voters remember that they are better than the scandal-mongers at Gawker think they are.

Follow Walter Shapiro on Twitter.
Filed Under: Culture, Campaigns

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269 Comments

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catalogsplus

I completely support restoring balance ein Washington, but O'Donnell ran a very inexperienced and immature and naive campaign, which shows she is not ready. It's that simple.

October 30 2010 at 8:53 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
dc walker

Since you folks have all the answers what position are you running for??

October 30 2010 at 6:13 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
thumbprint10

Dear Mr. Shapiro -- thank you for voicing your concerns with the disrespectful treatment of people in the public eye. Fringe American politics certainly seems to have embraced a "Race for the Bottom" mentality. Please rest assured that my husband and I, and most of our acquaintance, disregard fringe articles such as the one you refer to above as trash. Thank you for continuing to seek and provide a reasonable voice to your articles.

October 30 2010 at 3:42 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply
zdboyer

This is so weird....I mean REALLY weird. This is what you people talk about, about a woman who may or not have had sex 2 or 3 years ago at a party. What she said or did when she was in High School. It really sounds like a bunch of prissy lttle girls at a prom dance. And to think you guys actually vote.

October 30 2010 at 2:46 PM Report abuse +11 rate up rate down Reply
Sheila

All the "sorry for this poor little picked on candidate" is not going to work. When you run for state senate, anything goes and this gal has no right to that seat. She lies about her personal education, debt and knowledge. She is not qualified to be a state employee. Why with all the power of money do you people not realize that you are being hood winked by the Tea Baggers and the Republican party. You get this example of twit and radical bizare person making congress listen to her babblings .........please america, get it right and stop this madness.

October 30 2010 at 12:14 PM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Sheila's comment
k6cxv

With all due respect to your opinion Sheila, it sounds like your opinion of Miss O'Donnell would give her acceptable qualifications to run as a democrat

November 15 2010 at 7:21 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
politicolnews

I loved the doodle bug costume O'Donnell wore, and from that same set of pictures she looked like she was in the bag, literally drunk. I'd bet O'Donnell has some sexual dysfunctional problem judging by the recollection of her one night stand. Just like a sitting President Bill Clinton had to endure the wrath of republican smear campaigns -so can O'Donnell. If she can't take it -she should resign. When you enter the public domain, you better get real about the skeletons in your closet.

October 30 2010 at 9:57 AM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
smithc2003

I don't believe that public officials (or anyone for that matter) can not achieve moral standards. They are certainly not "Unattainable"...rare perhaps, but not impossible. A person's public life is a reflection of their private life. If they are found to be adulterers, liars or thieves before or during their elected term, can they be trusted to honestly represent those who put them in office? If they are more concerned about themselves and what they are going to get out of it, they shouldn't run for office. Our public officials are supposed to represent us. Albeit, and unfortunately, most of them are self-serving and only care about the needs of their voters during an election year. I am a Republican, and I usually vote for Republicans, however, this is not to say that all Republicans are above reproach, nor are all Democrats unethical. I just wish that they would all learn how to work together and be willing to give and take when passing bills. That's one thing I liked about former President George Bush. He seemed to be good at getting both sides to work together instead of dividing them. We need to stop this "Us verses them" mentality, not only in Congress, but among the citizens of this country.

October 30 2010 at 2:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
watson185

O'Donnell can dish it out but she can't take it. I am tired of these cutsey, mean, little girlish brats that are running for office. From Palin to O'donnell, their "I am almost too ditzy to know better" to the "Man Up!" phrases they use to push the buttons of their male opponets. These little girls are long on rhetoric and short on substance. They talk tough until they are asked questions on policy, then they get a "why are you picking on me?" attitude. When all of their speeches are "Blah, blah, blah Rights", "Blah, blah, blah Freedoms", and "Blah, blah, blah Constitution" they are worthless. Putting these mean little girls into office will do more harm to this country than the last administration did. Being under educated, under informed and vain makes them prime targets for manipulation.

October 29 2010 at 11:24 PM Report abuse -6 rate up rate down Reply
CEVYNBARRY

# rlaitres 8:51 PM Oct 29, 2010 * (0) vote this comment up * (0) vote this comment down * Like many, the individual is looking in the wrong place. Many do as it suits there purpose to do so. They should read on further, there they might run across that part which specifically prohibits any "religious test." All too many who claim to know the United States Constitution only know or care about selected parts or parse out only those words or phrases that they like, while having absolutely no idea whatsoever why those words, or why they were placed there in the first place. That explains all the sophomoric arguments we encounter on these boards. * Report Abuse # CEVYNBARRY 9:54 PM Oct 29, 2010 * (1) vote this comment up * (0) vote this comment down * i didn't realize she spoke about the right to bear arms. i thought they were discussing the first amendment. if you want to quote the constitution at least get the amendment correct. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. as long as i have been taught the constitution this has been called seperation of church and state.

October 29 2010 at 11:17 PM Report abuse -9 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to CEVYNBARRY's comment
CEVYNBARRY

whom ever posted this comment... all i care about is odonnell didn't know the constitution. i just want to point out saying the 2nd amendment was about religion was just plain wrong. do you are to know why we have seperation of church and state?

October 29 2010 at 11:38 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
CEVYNBARRY

it is my belief all of congress should have term limits. 12 years at the maximum. people like castle should have been gone years ago. i will vote for o'donnell if she supports that and makes it her pledge to get that enacted.

October 29 2010 at 10:51 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply

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