I bet you just shook off the Monday cobwebs. I bet I’ve got your attention now.
Actually, this column is about the rumor of sex — and whether it’s appropriate for the media to amplify whispers for which there is no proof.
This is about Kevin McCarthy, the House leadership guy who abruptly bailed on his bid to become Speaker in part because his intramural enemies on the Republican right were threatening to go nuclear about his personal life. Certainly that basic fact has to be covered, because the House Republicans are in the process of cannibalizing themselves, of proving yet again that they’re incapable of governing, and sliming McCarthy has been Exhibit A.
But when I wrote about this spectacle the other day, I purposely omitted all mention of the sex rumors. I guess I’m just old school.
I was trained back in the day by editors who required actual evidence. It wasn’t enough to simply say, “We gotta report this rumor because it’s out there and people are talking about it.” And today I’m happy to see that the old school ethos is still alive in some quarters — at The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Associated Press, Politico (all of which refused last week to repeat the details of the sex rumor), and at most of the cable networks (including MSNBC, where Mark Halperin of Bloomberg Politics said “there’s a lot of speculation” that McCarthy’s decision to bail was prompted by “things outside of his professional life”).
But the flip side of my old-school argument is that it’s wrong to leave readers and viewers in the dark; that if the political insiders are buzzing about something, then it behooves the press to share that buzz with the masses. Which helps explain why the lid blew off on Friday — courtesy of, among other outlets, The Huffington Post and Bill Maher’s HBO show. Here’s what Bill said that evening:
“There are rumors — I stress rumors — that the reason [McCarthy] stepped down was because he was having an affair with a member of the House, Renee Elmers. This is a rumor, I don’t like to spread rumors, but this is what they’re talking about.”
Yeesh, now I’ve detailed the rumor, simply by repeating it. But at this point, there’s no way to escape it, because Ellmers herself has publicly denied the rumor, calling it “bats–t crazy” — as reported by an AP story posted on The Times website. More telling is that Bill Maher’s decision to repeat a rumor “because this is what they’re talking about” was a classic example of how gossip gushes through the infotainment bloodstream. (He then joked that Ellmers was shacked up at a Marriott hotel.)
This is how political hardball is played today: McCarthy’s right-wing enemies (who didn’t think he was conservative enough, or whatever) apparently birthed the buzz about Ellmers on conservative websites — most notably, something called GotNews.com. Eventually, a Republican donor named Steve Baer took up the cause, and peppered Republican lawmakers and fellow conservatives with emails. Other conservative sites joined in last Thursday; Red State put Ellmers’ name in its headline, even though way down in the story, editor Erick Erickson admitted: “There’s no evidence of the rumor being true.”
I like what media analyst Howard Kurtz said the other day on Fox News. Kurtz has moved to the right since leaving The Washington Post, but his complaint rings true:
“It is disgraceful the ways these unproven rumors about Kevin McCarthy got started on a couple of conservative websites based on nothing more than gossip and a letter from some donor …. I don’t know whether these are true, nobody knows whether these are true, and a few years ago this kind of unsubstantiated trash would never have been reported …. It’s hard to be a gatekeeper these days, to say, ‘I’m not going to put this on the air, I’m not going to put this in the newspaper, when it’s spreading all over the web and social media …. It pains me that our profession sometimes gets stampeded into this.”
Granted, sex rumors often wind up being true. Bill Clinton’s “I didn’t have sex with that woman, Miss Lewinsky” turned out to be a lie. John Edwards’ repeated denials about Rielle Hunter turned out to be lies. But still, there are times when it behooves us to exercise at least a modicum of restraint. I’ll give you an example that hardly anyone remembers. I remember because I had to make a decision about whether to cover it.
In February 2004, John Kerry was gaining traction as a presidential candidate. Precisely at that moment — amazing coincidence — rumors began to circulate that he had conducted an affair with an intern. The right-wing Drudge Report heralded a “world exclusive,” albeit without a shred of proof, and it didn’t name an intern. Within hours, Rush Limbaugh was in full lather: “This is sort of like the Lewinsky situation …. If Kerry denies this, that’s not going to be good enough.” Two websites, run by the National Review and The Wall Street Journal, recycled the rumor, again without any proof. A day later, The Sun, a British tabloid owned by Rupert Murdoch, ran the rumor and outed an intern named Alexandra Polier. When Kerry denounced the rumor, the New York tabloids put him on the cover.
And then the buzz died — because responsible news outlets, noting the dearth of evidence and the firm denials by Polier as well as Kerry, refused to get sucked in. I steered clear until the “story” was dead, then I autopsied it. Tom Rosensteil, who ran the nonpartisan Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, told me something that, alas, still resonates today: “There are more outlets to shovel this stuff out … more outlets with low standards … People who want to manipulate the press and public have more leverage than ever. It’s a seller’s market.”
And as I lamented in that piece, “there are no rules of evidence in cyberspace.”