The 6 media distortions that magnify national disappointments

I made a mental list today of the institutions that have been stained by recent sexual scandals and came up with:  the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, Penn State University, the BBC, the CIA, Congress, the American Presidency (under Clinton), and the United States Military. Think of the importance of those institutions, how much good they do, and how much social and political capital they have stored up over the years.

Now make a list of iconic politicians and celebrities who have been caught up and brought down by revelations of their sexual crimes or improprieties: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, Jerry Sandusky, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Gen. David Petraeus, just to name a few. Whatever their differences they have this in common: their wives are pissed.

All of this is painful to watch, and impossible not to watch. Journalists cover scandal, comment on it, in some ways abet it. Long gone are the days when Babe Ruth, FDR, Ike, JFK were granted zones of privacy by an enabling press interested in more important things than the sexual escapades of powerful men.

Privacy is shrinking. In a digital world, what can be known will be known. Where can a powerful man go these days to cheat on his wife? How does one communicate these days with a current or potential lover? Instant messages? Emails? Skype? In our world, the smoking gun has become the smoking pixel.

If I were America's shrink-in-chief, I would prescribe for the country a couple years of cognitive therapy. How we feel about something is influenced if not determined by how we know it and how we come to know it. What follows is a list of the cognitive distortions that lead to our current disappointment.

Distortion #1: The world is full of flawless heroes. The Greeks understand that the greatest heroes could have fatal flaws. Such ambiguity is called real life. The press has tended to cheapen heroism by applying it too broadly. A cancer survivor, a first responder, a soldier in Iraq may, in fact, be a terrible person, and they should not be lionized by category. Perhaps we can designate words like hero as a cliche, no longer fit for general use.

Distortion #2: There are ideal marriages. Who did you think would be married longer, the Gores or the Clintons? Surprise. All marriages are complicated, all partners vulnerable to temptation and violation of oaths. These become more pronounced later in life. Journalists should be un-surprisable when it comes to high profile marriages. If the husband has not yet cheated on his wife with a younger woman, he is thinking about it, planning it, acting on it, sending emails, renewing his prescription to Viagra.

Distortion #3: There are men in public life who are so powerful, in jobs so sensitive, that they will do everything in their power to avoid scandal. Not true. Side effects of power and charisma in an aging male are arrogance and a sense of invulnerability -- leading to risky behavior. It doesn't help that such men are sexually attractive to women of all ages, from young interns to mature biographers. Sorry, I assume that all powerful guys are screwing around or want to be.

Distortion #4: All forms of sexual misconduct are equal. This is obviously not correct, and our legal and religious culture already posit all kinds of distinctions. These are hard to observe when a story emerges with words like sex and mistress in the headline.  Given how much sexual abuse there is in the military -- mostly against women -- it's a joke that adultery is outlawed by the Military Code of Conduct. What matters most? The age of the partner (Lewinsky, no; Broadwell, I don't care); whether there is coercion or abuse of power; whether a law has been broken; and most important, whether there is a damaging effect on the public work of the person in power.

Distortion #5: Unfaithful husbands make bad public servants. Were Richard Nixon or Jimmy Carter better presidents than FDR or JFK because they, apparently, never cheated on their wives? Part of the glory and trauma of human complexity is the ability of people to act nobly in one sphere of life and ignobly in another. Some Nazi murderers were said to be gentle and attentive parents.

Distortion #6: People are mostly good, and bad behavior is the aberration. I want this to be true, but my desire is no substitute for my experience. From the original sin of Catholic theology to Thomas Hobbes's state of nature in "Leviathan," we have evidence of something dark at the heart of human experience. We also live with stories of conversion and redemption, which only reveals a great depth of complexity of life on earth.

I used to think: People deserve the right to be considered good until they reveal evidence they are flawed. We'd be better off as citizens and journalists to flip the equation. If I am reporting on a children's hospital, I now assume that someone there is abusing the children, or planning to. If I am wrong, I will be surprised and delighted.

That a 60-year-old man is sleeping with a 40-year-old woman who admires him is not a surprise and (if not laden with national security issues) not even news. That's dog bites man.

In spite of overtures from many younger female admirers, the general has remained faithful to his wife of 37 years. Now that would be news.

Skepticism doubts knowledge; Cynicism doubts human goodness. Journalists need both, but the cynicism should come with an escape hatch.

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    Roy Peter Clark

    Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty member, dean, vice-president, and senior scholar.


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