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.
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