Okay, today I officially refuse to read any more news stories covering David Petraeus’ affair. They are all archly moralizing or nosy explotation disguised as journalism. Even my dear NYT published an article called “Timeline Shows F.B.I. Discovered Affair in Summer”. The last time the NYTused a timeline, it was in reference to the attack in Benghazi (an actual news matter).
The Times article in question states that FBI agents were “wary of exposing a private affair with no criminal or security implications.” Just go ahead and read that last part of the sentence again. No criminal or security implications. That’s what tells us right there that the interest in the “Petraeus affair” has nothing to do with the general’s job – it has to do with prurience and some kind of holier than thou attitude. Just to be clear here, the FBI used its extraordinary powers to pursue an investigation into a man who had done nothing illegal, or threatening to the security welfare of his country and the C.I.A. In fact, the article questions why the FBI chose to divulge the affair, but you wouldn’t know it from the headline. Same goes for Slate: are you really asking if Paula Broadwell is a “Skankzilla?“, or do you just know someone is going to click?
Here’s how I feel, newspeople: you want to report that General Petraeus is resigning because of an affair, fine, go ahead. That’s newsworthy. Publishing a cadre of stories unpacking every single possible detail of the affair, though? That sounds more like Entertainment Weekly or People, or whatever the hell magazines are in the checkout line at Duane Reade.
Remember 1998? Of course you do. Dunkaroos, Hey Arnold!, the Monica Lewinsky scandal…
Well, here’s something you may not remember. Our adulterous former president, shining star of the Democratic Party, left office with an approval rating of 66%, which is the highest recorded approval rating for a president upon leaving office. What does this mean? In this case, I think it means that Americans believe that one’s private life does not damage one’s ability to govern. Did Bill Clinton have an encounter with Ms. Lewinsky? Almost certainly. Did he give her the nuclear launch codes or folders full of secret documents? Absolutely not.
So, now that news sources have established that Petraeus’ affair with Broadwell, again, had no criminal or security implications, how do they continue to justify reportage on the topic? Simple – it sells papers.
For some reason (I’m gonna go with Puritans), sex is a great lightning rod for moral outrage. It’s easier to hate someone for having an affair than for spending political money on family vacations or being openly racist.
Despite the fact that adultery is not illegal in this country, many publicly elected officials have been tarnished by reports of their out-of-marriage exploits. But here’s the truth – every day, our representatives are doing far worse. They are stealing money from campaign funds, they are funneling federal dollars to their family members, they illegally publish classified information to serve their own political ends. But hey, at least they didn’t have consensual sex with someone they weren’t married to! Then that would really get bad!
Some journalists are trying to address this issue, but the coverage is still all about judging the actors in the scandal. TIME might mean well, but this article only asks, aren’t we wrong to blame the mistress instead of the husband? instead of asking, aren’t we wrong to spend thousands of words and dollars inserting ourselves into other people’s private lives?
You know what? I get why public officials resign after their infidelities have been revealed. It makes them seem untrustworthy in the eyes of the public, and no one wants someone untrustworthy in charge of lots of money and surveillance programs. But, that just has to do with the way adultery is perceived, and even more to do with the way sex itself is perceived in this culture of voyeurism and guilt.
We don’t know what goes on in relationships that aren’t ours. . Look back over at the Clintons – adultery can be overcome. Here’s the thing, everyone. People make mistakes. When they involve other people’s money and rights, they are problems for everyone. When they involves personal, emotional contracts made between two private individuals, they are problems for those two people alone. David Petraeus has carried out his professional responsibilities admirably and well – his personal responsibilities should be of no concern to anyone else.