What should the media’s role be in the Petraeus scandal?
This week, China elected new members of their Communist leadership. More than 1 million Israelis had to sleep in bomb shelters because of the Gaza conflict. President Barack Obama began the first week of his second term. But the news that received the most extensive media coverage this week? Former CIA Director David Petraeus’ extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.
The inordinate amount of attention the affair and Petraeus’ resignation are receiving illustrates the media’s inclination toward sensationalist journalism, which distracts from more pressing issues. Though it’s important for media outlets to keep public figures in check, they need to realize the line between real news and private matters.
Granted, there are legitimate reasons for people to be upset about Petraeus’ affair that merit media attention. For a man with access to such sensitive information, an affair certainly could lead to a national security threat. In addition, the fact that Petraeus used an easily accessible personal Gmail account to communicate with Broadwell is definitely a red flag, pointing to a lack of discretion on his part. But no matter how the story is spun, it’s not the biggest issue on the nation’s plate.
The FBI has looked into the affair as far back as to when Petraeus and Broadwell first met in 2006, and still has found nothing that constitutes a threat to national security. And as for Petraeus’ professional record, it is clear that his affair had a minimal impact on his effectiveness as CIA director or as a four-star general.
In the aftermath of the scandal and Petraeus’ resignation, the media hasn’t acted as a watchdog, but instead has taken a purely personal affair and turned it into news. Many media outlets have been speculating about the political impact of the affair — a situation unrelated to Petraeus’ work as CIA director — and have been attempting to tie together the personal and professional Petraeus’ to frame the affair as a significant incident. The New York Daily News, for example, posted a story titled “The Taliban is amused by the Petraeus sex scandal,” implying that the affair somehow relates to terrorism, which, on any level, is pointless to bring up. Some stories have been published that characterize Petraeus’ personal actions as a violation of military code, others suggest that Broadwell might have had access to sensitive information simply because she was close to Petraeus, not because of any actual evidence he shared information with her. These angles attempt to add legitimacy to stories fit only for tabloids.
This kind of sensationalist journalism is difficult to prevent; it sells newspapers and gives journalists something to analyze and write about. What’s dangerous about sensationalist journalism, however, is that it distracts readers from more pertinent and newsworthy issues. Petraeus, for example, will appear before the House Intelligence Committee on Friday to testify about the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, but a Google News search of his name produces an entire page of articles related only to the sex scandal and his resignation.
Not only has sensationalism distracted from important current events, but also from Petraeus’ well-established, valuable service record. Retired Lt. Col. John L. Cook, who served in Afghanistan, described this in a Nov. 15 Daily Beast article.
“That isn’t the story that Americans should be paying as much attention to right now,” Cook said. “What matters more was what Petraeus did as a commander, not what he did in the bedroom.”
Taking into consideration the recent presidential election, developments in Israel and the Middle East, China’s changing leadership and the overall poor state of the global economy, there are many issues that deserve the media and Americans’ attention more than Petraeus’ personal life. The media, as the main drivers of public thought and awareness, should remember its primary role as the supplier of truth and knowledge, not entertainment.
Burke Gibson is a sophomore majoring in economics and is the Daily Trojan’s Chief Copy Editor.
Point/Counterpoint runs Fridays.
From former President Bill Clinton to Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former Sen. John Edwards, former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and most recently, former CIA director David Petraeus, the media has often blurred the line between private and public lives when it comes to public officials’ extramarital affairs.
The sensationalism of a high-profile sex scandal is inevitable and is what grabs most people’s attention, but the media plays a less visible, though far more important role in such situations. Though the media’s sensationalist over-reporting of Petraeus’ extramarital affair has dominated the news cycle this week, it stems from a function that is crucial to recognize and maintain: the media’s role as watchdog.
On Nov. 9, Petraeus announced his resignation as CIA director, openly acknowledging his sexual infidelity with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. This immediately opened up the media floodgates. The fact that this was the CIA director — not a senator, governor or even president — brought up questions not only of personal and professional morality, but also of national security and the possibility that classified documents had been shared with Broadwell. A multi-year story unfolded, beginning with Broadwell and Petraeus’ first meeting in 2006 to May of this year, when the FBI, while looking into complaints from another woman about Broadwell and Petraeus, stumbled upon emails between the two indicating their affair.
It is not the media’s role to entertain the public with the sordid details of an extramarital affair, but it is its responsibility to find out what happened after public admittance of an affair and to provide the public the truth, so citizens can form decisions about their public leaders. This was especially pertinent in the case of Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky in 1998, when the former president’s private decisions led to his very public impeachment.
Without the media digging and exposing information about Clinton, Petraeus or any other public official, the already-deep vacuum of accountability for politicians and public figures’ personal lives would be even deeper. The frequency with which high-profile sex scandals take place — especially ones more serious than extramarital affairs, such as former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s involvement in a prostitution ring or the sexual assault case brought against former managing director of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn — necessitates the watchdog presence of the media.
Additionally, the media’s role in serving as watchdog is crucial when it can help spark change. And in this particular situation, news outlets are uniquely positioned to do just that. Sexual infidelity is a huge problem in society — and so are rape and sexual assault in the U.S. military. The 2011 Department of Defense’s Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, which only began in 2004, estimated that there were 19,000 incidents of sexual assault in the fiscal year 2011. According to the same report, in 2010, 1,025 actions were taken by commanders on the grounds of sexual assault. In 2011? Only 791.
The media should seize this chance to take a closer look at the sexual ethics of military leaders and expose much more serious issues than extramarital affairs. If the justice system within the military isn’t working, then it is the media’s responsibility to step in, investigate and expose this flawed system. That is something of true public interest that merits the media crossing into public officials’ private lives.
In the case of Petraeus’ affair, there was no criminal activity involved nor a breach of security that made an impact on a four-star general’s impressive career. But there was a breach in morality that stretches far beyond Petraeus specifically, and that is something the media has a responsibility to investigate and expose. The media should not just focus on the scandalous, sensational details, but take this opportunity to prove itself as watchdog and dig into much deeper, more pressing issues currently impacting the military as a whole.
Elena Kadvany is a senior majoring in Spanish and is the Daily Trojan’s Editorial Director. Point/Counterpoint runs Fridays.